The flat feels like an adult space catastrophically overrun by children. On opposite walls, just out of reach, some club posters, framed rave artwork from the early nineties, and over in a corner, propped up by a computer station, a guitar and a keyboard, both in protective flight bags. But the rest of the room - it’s as if a river of toys has burst its banks and flooded the place; half-opened boxes of games, disassembled dolls, a great tidal line of brightly coloured plastic washed up on every surface when the day receded. There’s just enough clear space for Belle to sit on the edge of the sofa and cry, whilst her husband, Tom, picks through the wreckage in a hunt for tobacco.
‘I can’t do it,’ she says. ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’ Then adds almost immediately, in a strangely off-to-the-side voice, ‘Listen to her. What’s she got to moan about?’
Belle has only taken a small overdose. Six citalopram hardly counts, even with the bottle of wine she washed them down with. But the fact she took them, the fact she came to press the tablets out of their blister pack into her palm, this has flipped her upside down.
‘I’m not normally like this,’ she says. ‘But it’s just all too much for me.’ She smiles at us. ‘Sorry. You’ve got better things to be doing. I don’t want to waste your time.’
‘Come on, babe,’ says Tom, sitting down next to her and putting his arm round her shoulder. ‘I love you. Yeah?’
‘I love you, too, honey.’ But her shoulders are stiff, and very soon Tom gets back up. ‘Where’s the tin?’ he says.
‘I don’t know.’
Tom stays in the flat whilst Belle walks with us out to the ambulance.
‘Can I have a hug?’ she says.
‘Not from me, I’m afraid,’ I say, opening the ambulance door.
‘How embarrassing. Everyone’s looking.’
‘I don’t think so. I don’t suppose they’ll even notice.’
She throws herself down on a seat, and folds her arms and legs.
I sit opposite, Rae next to her.
‘Tell us what happened tonight, Belle.’
She blows her nose, then looks at me with watery eyes.
‘I do my best. I really do. I try and try and try. But it’s hard. I don’t want to put the kids into nursery. They’re not small for long. I wanted to enjoy them, give them as much as I could. I take them to play groups, they get out and about. But Tom’s started a new business, he’s out all the time – and I mean, all the time. He’s never home. It feels like I’m bringing the kids up by myself. And I get so tired. The kids bicker and fight. They’re having a horrible time. All I do is shout at them. They’re so incredibly demanding. And I get absolutely no time for myself. None. I’ve lost sight of who I am. What I want. I don’t know who I am anymore. We went on a little holiday last week, down to see friends in Dorset, surfing. Well, actually I was looking after the kids. Tom did the surfing.’
Then again, she drops her hands and the other Belle speaks.
‘Hark at her and her poor little hard luck story. God, some people just don’t know when they’re well off.’
I put the clipboard down and rub my eyes.
‘It’s hard,’ I say. ‘Bringing up small children is very, very hard. It’s no wonder you’re struggling. Anyone would.’
‘Would they?’ she says. ‘Did you?’
‘Well for a start me and my partner put both our girls through nursery, even though it was a stretch. We couldn’t have managed if we didn’t. I’m not saying it’s wrong or right. It’s just how we did it. My mum would never have put any of us into nursery even if she could’ve afforded it. She wanted to stay at home and look after us, which isn’t better or worse. It’s just different. Although I think she’d say looking after kids at home is better. Whenever I spoke to her on the phone she’d always end up asking how long their day was, and then sound really shocked. But you have to look at your own circumstances and decide what suits you best.’
‘I don’t have to go to hospital, do I? I don’t want to be locked up and never see my kids again.’
‘No-one’s going to be locking you up tonight, Belle. The only reason to take you to hospital would be to get you to talk to someone about what happened. Our worry would be if you stayed at home you’d do something else to hurt yourself. But you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. We can think of something else.’
‘I feel so stupid. Such a fraud. You’ve got better things to do.’
‘Nope. Not at the moment.’
‘Tom doesn’t understand what it’s like. He’s never there. He comes home and all he wants is something to eat and then go to sleep. He’s exhausted – but so am I. I’m completely exhausted. I get up in the morning and it’s like I never went to bed.’ She looks down and speaks in the other voice. ‘Some wife. There’s her husband trying to make a go of it and the mad bitch brings him down.’
‘I think it’s very difficult to be clear about what you want, and to go about getting it. I think that can make you feel very guilty, which just adds to the pain.’
‘I am guilty,’ she says. ‘My poor kids. They deserve someone better.’
She cries some more. Rae gives her fresh tissues.
When the crisis passes she asks me if I’ve ever done something similar.
‘I’ve never taken an overdose,’ I say.
‘You could at least have lied about it to make me feel better.’
‘I was on anti-depressants for a while, when I got really stressed towards the end of my teaching career.’
‘Did they help?’
‘Yeah, they helped.’
‘They let me stand back from it all and realise that teaching was driving me crazy.’
‘I’m just terrified I’m going to get stuck on them for the rest of my life.’
‘Not this sort. I know what you mean, but they’re not like tranquilisers or sleeping pills. If your doctor’s any good they’ll be able to reassure you. Is your doctor any good?’
‘I don’t like to bother them. They’ve got more important things to be doing.’
There’s a knock on the side door and Tom climbs in.
‘I can’t be long ‘cos of the kids. You going to be all right, babe?’ he says.
She smiles, and accepts a kiss on her forehead.
‘You taking her up the hospital?’
I look at Belle and she nods.
‘Here’s your keys, then, your phone and your purse. Get a taxi back, hon,’ he says. ‘Okay?’
He kisses her again and jumps back out.
‘Let’s go,’ she says, this other, tougher Belle. ‘Take the crazy bitch away.’