by Carys Crossen
The toilet cubicle, like the bar it serviced, was small and shabby. The maroon paint was peeling off the wooden door and partitions. The lighting was buttery yellow, soft and flattering. The old-fashioned black-and-white floor tiles were reasonably clean. Gail had nipped in briefly, to check I was okay, but I’d sent her away, telling her I just wanted a bit of alone time, and she hadn’t quibbled.
I had fled to the ladies’ loo for respite, and not to take a piss. It was my first night out since Gran had died, and pain pursued me and latched onto me at peculiar moments. People talk about the weight of grief, as though it were a stone dragging you down to the riverbed, but for me it was like a demented octopus. Swimming after me, twining its tentacles round me and squeezing me until I howled.
I put the lid down and sat, a few tears trickling down my cheeks. They weren’t replaced, and after an iota I wiped my face and stared at the door. Amidst the usual indecipherable scrawls, there was an occasional witty phrase: ‘Question everything’ with ‘Why?’ positioned in smart-alec fashion alongside.
The corners of my mouth turned up, just a touch.
I began reading everything written there, whilst wondering why so many women carried pens around with them. Or did they bring them in here on purpose? Their own literary contribution, no matter how small and impermanent? Gran never would have contributed anything. She would’ve considered it vandalism, but I liked it.
There was the usual ‘Becca luvs Jonesy’ (names variable) here and there. A heart or two. An unexpected number of poetical quotes, including one I thought was Shakespeare: ‘Simply the thing I am shall make me live’. Then I turned my attention to the right-hand cubicle wall.
What I thought was a swarm of mini-affirmations was nothing of the kind. The felt-tip hieroglyphics, stark plain black, started near the top of the cubicle, or at least that was what caught my eye initially. The first sentence I read was ‘I have to tell someone, anyone.’ Below: ‘Karma’s a bitch. I fell in love with a married man and had an affair. He left his wife for me. We’re married and I’m miserable. I rationalised it at the time. We were meant to be together, his wife was a cow, all that shit. But I just can’t trust him. I keep looking for signs he cheated. He did it once, why not with me? I’m not looking for sympathy or anything. I just wanted to tell you.’
I read it, eyes goggling and my pain momentarily receding in the fascination of someone else’s agony being exposed. I felt a little sorry for the woman, but not that much. Why was she so desperate to have another woman’s husband? Had it really been true love or did she just want him because someone else had him? There was one nasty comment penned below – ‘Serves you right, slut – but below that was another confession.
‘I feel your pain. When I was a teenager I dumped my girlfriend because I was too scared to tell my family I was a lesbian. I was only a kid, but I still wonder about her. I’ve never felt as much for anyone else. I’ve never told anyone about this. Might as well tell it to whoever you are.’
That woman I did feel sorry for. I’d done stupid things as a teenager, because I was timid and uncertain and didn’t have the courage of my convictions. Below that was a veritable waterfall of ink, all of them confessions of misdeeds and regrets and selfish, stupid actions. Neat, tight cursive, big looping swirly penmanship, spiky print told their respective tales of guilt.
“I began reading everything written there, whilst wondering why so many women carried pens around with them. Or did they bring them in here on purpose?”
‘I gave my best friend ecstasy and she had a bad reaction and nearly died. It was months before she got better, and when she did she forgot I gave it to her. She’s been so grateful to me for being a good friend during her recovery and I feel like a shit and won’t say anything in case she hates me.’
I sympathised with that woman, whoever she was. I was sure she hadn’t meant to hurt her friend. Had she just supplied the drug, or slipped it into a drink or something? I thought maybe the former. Her friend had taken it, and probably hadn’t been forced into it. But the confessor had hurt someone she loved without meaning to. There was nothing worse to feel.
The next one was horrible. It went: ‘I’m the worst person I know. I was messing about on my friend’s phone and found a naked picture of her. For some reason – I was having a crap day or something – I sent it to all our friends. Someone stuck it on Facebook and it went viral. She was devastated and got really bad depression and quit her job. When our friends looked at the time it was sent, and told her, she worked out I was the sender. Now I have no friends and my family found out and are so ashamed of me they’ve stopped speaking to me.’
I read and re-read that one, wondering if the writer had meant to hurt her friend for some reason, or whether she’d just done a stupid selfish thing on the spur of the moment, as she implied. I didn’t feel bad for her, only for her former friend who had had that naked picture of herself plastered all over the internet.
The next was shorter. ‘My brother is terrified of spiders so I caught loads of them and let them loose in his room. I’m still waiting for his revenge.’
I giggled about that one. I shouldn’t have, but I did. The next one wasn’t so benign.
‘I really liked a man at work. Then one day he asked if I thought my co-worker liked him. I knew she did, because she’d told me. But I was jealous and I told him she already had a boyfriend. I hoped he’d ask me out instead. But he never has. Now he’s dating a woman from another department and I’m still jealous.’
And serve you bloody well right, I thought, bitter as vinegar. I hoped that woman’s soul hadn’t received any good from her admission. Then onto the next confession.
‘I drove home drunk one night. No-one got hurt, but I still feel sick thinking about what might have happened.’
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that one. Nothing terrible had happened, but only because dumb luck had been on the writer’s side that night. I moved on.
‘I bullied a girl at school. She was a snobby cow and no-one liked her. One day I told her she should kill herself and make everyone happy. She didn’t come back to school after that and we found out she had killed herself. Her sister walked up to me at school afterwards and asked what I’d be doing to celebrate, now her sister had killed herself and made me happy. I stopped going to school because her sister kept asking me, every day, was I happy now. I couldn’t look her in the face.’
Whatever you feel, you’re alive to feel it, I thought. And that girl you bullied isn’t. So you got what you wanted, and you can’t give it back, and it didn’t make anyone happy.
Below that was a single sentence:
‘Sometimes I cry, I don’t know why.’
I cried when I read that. I knew why I cried. Gran. I’d never see her, speak to her any more. She was gone.
There were more, lots more, and I sat there and read through them all, all across the partition and onto the painted brick wall behind the toilet. A small, dark confined space, but no man of God to confess to, to forgive. Only whoever needed to shit immediately after the confessor. I wondered if it had done them any good, brought them any comfort.
Almost of their own volition, my fingers groped for my bag. I always carried a biro round with my, just in case. To write down a shopping list, directions, to sign my name with. And now to add my own confession with.
I wrote: ‘I loved my Gran, but she could bore on for ages. One night I had a call from her. I was busy – or I thought I was – and I let it go to voicemail, thinking I’d ring her back the next day. She died in her sleep that night. Gran, if you can read this, I’m so sorry. Whoever reads this, don’t make my mistake.’
That was my sin. My last chance to speak to Gran and I’d let her down. I hadn’t told my family. I was ashamed of myself. Someone might as well know. If it stopped them from doing something they’d regret, it would be worth it.
Cold comfort, perhaps. But comfort nonetheless.
I was crying again. It was peculiar, the tears were almost a reflex. For a few brief moments, pain had loosened its grip on my guts. I capped my pen, wiped my face. I’d made my confession. Maybe I’d be forgiven, by the next woman who came. Maybe she’d damn me to hell. But I’d made it.
I unlocked the door, went out to re-join my friends. A woman brushed passed me as I exited, diamonds glimmering in her eyes. I watched as she went into the confession cubicle. I was tempted to linger, but I didn’t. Confession is sacrosanct, after all.
Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. She has published several non-fiction articles about horror and the Gothic, and her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, Three Drops Press, Cauldron Anthology, Blink Ink and The First Line journal. She lives in Manchester with her husband.