6 am. 10th of December. I wake to artificial light. My nightmares have gotten worse since moving from Donegal to Dublin. I switch my bedside lamp off.
I muster the courage to feel my back, frightened it’s wet with blood. Last night, a stranger came to me in a dream; he said he was my flatmate, even though I live alone. He held me down, punctured the skin on my back with a butcher’s hook, and hung me from the ceiling. My back isn’t wet.
Check he’s not in your flat. I get out of bed. The hairs on my arms are erect. Four times. You have to check four times.
I begin to check. I start with my cupboard, that’s where he’d hide. It’s empty. I walk to my desk and look underneath. He’s not there either. Look under your bed. That’s where they always hide. I go to the hall cupboard, remove a brush, and use it to check under my bed. Check. Check. Check. Check. There’s no one there.
The kitchen turned living room is next. I check the kitchen cupboards first. He’s not in any of them. He’d be dead if he’d tried to hide in the fridge. Check the fridge. Check the microwave. You haven’t checked behind the TV or under the coffee table. Look harder! I can’t find him anywhere. I check the bin as a final precaution.
I walk to the bathroom and peek inside. There’s a dark shadow cast across the floor, big enough to be human. It’s him! I am alert to the pounding of my heart. I open the door, blinking to bring the room into focus. It’s only my bathrobe. I walk around searching for him, reluctantly looking behind the shower curtain. I check it again. And again. And again.
I check the lights too, like I do every morning, and then I can get ready for work. I sleep with the light on, even though I no longer live with Eoin. One night, I was feeling brave, so I turned it off. I woke up at 4 am, and the light I’d turned off was on. What if he pressed the button on with his hook? I switch each light on and off. On and off. On and off. On and off.
Eoin fucked me up. If I’d left him and stayed in Donegal, he’d have continued to make my life hell. The first time he put his hands around my neck, his eyes were burning with rage. He squeezed as tightly as he could.
I take off my pyjamas so I can get dressed. My outfit is already chosen and folded up neatly on my chair. I put on my uniform: oversized tracksuit bottoms and a red and blue top. I notice that my hair is a mess. I tie it back with a bobble; apply foundation to hide the acne I should have outgrown, some mascara, and a cheap lip-gloss a friend gave me for Christmas last year.
I put on my jacket and hat, grab my handbag, and lock the door. I haven’t got time for breakfast. Check that the door is locked, or he’ll break in when you’re out. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle.
I walk to the Luas, and hear footsteps behind me. What if it’s the man from my dream? I knock my hat off, and turn around. Any excuse. It’s not him, just a stranger. Maybe the man from my dream sent him to kill me. My heart pounds against my ribcage. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound. I can see the stranger’s shadow behind me.
The Luas is swarming with bodies. My throat tightens. I’m scared the carriage will suddenly lurch. The stranger who walked behind me presses his body against mine. Check that there’s not a knife in his pocket. I can’t check. I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I can’t do anything. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound.
Stillorgan. Kilmacud. I am back to back and front to front and side to side with strangers. Why haven’t you checked his pocket for a knife? I can’t fucking check. Balally. Don’t get off until you’ve been on for four stops, or he’ll stab you. Dundrum. I get off the Luas and wait, even though I know I’ll be late for work. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound. I hope the next tram isn’t so crowded.
There’s a group of school kids waiting across from me. They all look so carefree, so happy. They joke about baptising their friend with strawberry water. There was a day when I’d have laughed. Now I’m scared I accidentally make eye contact with them.
I take my iPhone out of my handbag. 8:50 am. Shit. I look up. Seven minutes until the next tram. Fuck. Put your phone in and out of your handbag four times, and you won’t be late for work. In and out. In and out. In and out. In and out.
9:15 am. I arrive at the sports shop fifteen minutes late. I should have put my phone in and out of my handbag eight times.
The bright, neon SALE signs hung from razor-sharp wire are blinding. I look at the shoes, weights, and football bins on the shop floor, and then at the mountains of clothes on the walls, just to give my eyes a break.
Don’t look at anyone. They’re out to get you! I firmly fix my eyes on the floor, clock in with my index finger, and busy myself in the storeroom. I don’t want to serve at the tills, to be close to people.
There are a few things needing to be done in the storeroom. I know I should be serving, but I can’t. I organise newly arrived t-shirts by size, and then begin to cube them. No one else wants to do this job anyway.
A creak. The door is open. It’s Megan.
“Hey Erin! How are you today?”
I panic. I have to reply. Everyone’s been so kind to me after things got too much last week. “Grand! Very busy!”
Megan walks over to the other end of the room, and I’m glad. What’s she doing? You’d better check. Oh. My. God. She has a seven inch needle in her hand. She’s going to kill you! She turns on the helium machine to inflate footballs. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound. She’s going to stab you with the needle. I leave. Check she’s not following you! I turn around. I turn around. I turn around. I turn around.
I walk as swiftly as I can to the bathroom without drawing attention to myself. I get inside, lock and slide down against the door. I take four deep breaths, and another four, just to be safe. I think logically. Megan’s not going to harm you. She’s just doing her job. My heart slows down.
I return to the storeroom. I can do this. I start cubing t-shirts again. I tell myself that if I cube four a minute, no one will harm me. The relief I feel is overwhelming. I put on a cube. I put on a cube. I put on a cube. I put on a cube.
Loudspeaker. “Can Erin come to tills?”
My pupils dilate. I haven’t got a choice. I need this job. I walk out of the storeroom, through the hallway littered with stock, and to the tills. There’s a long line of customers. Two old women at the back are tapping their feet. Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
I sign onto till four, and begin to scan items. I briefly make eye contact with customers when scanning, I have to, and again when I hand them their receipts and/or change. My manager has told us to upsell certain items in case the big boss sends in a mystery shopper. Aftershave that’s €5, or two for €8, and small, medium, and large recyclable bags. I upsell nothing.
The old women are at my till. Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap. I sigh. I’m not in the right frame of mind to deal with this.
I apologise, “I’m so sorry for your wait.”
“It’s alright,” says the taller woman. “You’re the fastest cashier in here!”
If only they knew it’s because I’m not doing my job properly. Upselling takes time. Upselling makes the line move slower. I scan their items, two pairs of tracksuit bottoms, hand them their receipt, and €2 change.
“Jaysus, wait a minute…” says the smaller woman.
She passes the receipt to her friend. Their eyes widen, and they shake their heads. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound.
“Why have you charged us €28? Sure it says on the sign that it’s buy one get one free!” the taller woman complains.
My throat tightens for a second time. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound.
I tell them how the offer works, “That offer is only valid on items of the same brand.”
The smaller woman shouts, “Give us our money back!”
“I’ll let you both speak to my manager,” I say.
I search for my manager. He is in the first place I check, the staffroom, eating his lunch.
“There’s two customers kicking off at my till. I’ve told them our store policy, and they won’t accept it,” I say.
“Don’t worry!” he replies. “I’m on it!”
He takes a bite of his half-eaten sandwich and a gulp of Red Bull, and follows me to the till. After last week, I’m surprised I still have a job. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound.
“I’m sorry, ladies. You can return one pair so that they are both the same brand, and I’ll give you a 10% discount as a good will gesture?” he suggests.
They nod happily, but the smaller of the two casts me a scornful glare. Only my manager can give discounts. What if the old women come back to get you? You’d better check they leave the store. I can check. I can make myself feel better.
“I’m just running to the loo!” I say to my manager.
I walk towards the bathroom, following the old women with my eyes. Once I’m out of my manager’s view, I physically follow them, ducking behind countless clothes rails and football bins.
I see them leave. But what if they’re following you? You need to keep checking! I walk back to the till, turning my head to check they aren’t following me. I turn my head. I turn my head. I turn my head. I turn my head.
I return to serve customers. Why don’t you cube four items a minute again? Then you’ll be safe. I can’t. The line keeps getting longer.
I remove a lot of security tags. They are needle-thin. I imagine the old women standing over me, each holding a tag, plucking my eyeballs from their sockets.
My shift passes in a blur of security tag fear, a lunch break, shaking, a dinner break, and then more shaking. There are no more complaints. I clock off at 7pm.
I walk down Grafton Street to the Luas. Beneath the twinkling gold Christmas lights, tourists scramble for photographs, and frustrated workers push and shove their way through the sea of people. The sea is at its densest around buskers; ebbing around the homeless littering the street, wrapped in a sleeping bags, hoping against hope that they’ll have enough spare change for a warm bed tonight.
My throat tightens for a third time. What if someone mugs you? That homeless man looks desperate. I change the way I am walking. Left foot and then right foot, but never right and then left.
I arrive at the Luas, squeeze past the alighting swarm, scan my Leapcard, spot a space to stand, and get on board. I hate the rush hour, but it lasts too long to wait. I’m too scared to stand around St Stephen’s Green.
I stand pressed against the glass door, looking at the reflections of those around me, heads buried in smartphones. Then I spot him. The stranger who walked behind me this morning. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound.
He’s followed you. You’d better check he’s not got a knife! I couldn’t check this morning, and I can’t check now. Get off and on at each stop! I get off at Harcourt.
An hour later, I am almost at Stillorgan. Then the carriage suddenly lurches, and people fall over. A car has driven out in front of the Luas. It’s a near miss. I’m still standing. Some of those who fell have been crushed by the swarm.
A sickly feeling overwhelms me, and I lose control of my legs. Pound. Pound. Pound. Pound. I turn to face the strangers around me. A few suppress smirks. They probably think I’m drunk. Darkness closes in from the corners of my eyes.
“Are you alright?” a voice asks as I come around. It’s the ticket inspector. “We’re at Sandyford, the last stop. Do you want me to call you a taxi?” I nod.
I arrive home. You’d better be extra careful that you’ve locked the door. Check! I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle. I pull down the handle, and collapse on the sofa.
I can’t go on like this, I’ll lose my job, and have to move back to Donegal, to Eoin. I vow to make a doctor’s appointment in the morning.
I sit up on the sofa, lean over the coffee table, and open my laptop. It’s time to get help. After half an hour of Googling, I find myself on a mental health forum. I post an anonymous thread. I need answers.
It’s 10 pm. I walk out of the living room to my bedroom, and begin to get ready for bed. I’m more anxious than usual. What if someone comments calling you an attention seeker? Check your post regularly! I set four alarms at intervals until 6 am.
I take off my clothes, put them into the laundry basket, and fold a clean set onto my chair. Pound. Pound.
Pound. Pound. I put on my pyjamas, and walk slowly into the bathroom to remove my make up.
I look in the mirror, face wipe in hand. I can hear the wind howling as I wipe my make up off. Something moves from behind the shower curtain. What if it’s the man from your dream? What if he managed to hide when you looked this morning? Check! I look behind the shower curtain. I look behind the shower curtain. I look behind the shower curtain. I look behind the shower curtain.
Do you want to wake up with a hook through your back? Look for him again! I check everywhere I checked this morning four times, and get into bed at midnight.
Eoin said he hit me because I was needy, because I was too reliant on him. He said that he’d never hurt me once I’d learned, that he only did it because he cared.
I’m alone in Dublin. My family and friends are in Donegal, and I miss them, but I can’t go back. Mum and Dad said they’ll visit next weekend.
1 am. My eyelids are heavy, and body half-asleep. This thing in my head isn’t going to win, Eoin isn’t going to win. Before I switch my bedside lamp off, I check that it’s working. On and off. On and off. On and off. On and off.