by Mike Fox

Two years isn’t that long, but I always thought of Josie as volatile. I wondered if the things I remembered about her might have disappeared.

They haven’t. She passes me a mug of water, then returns to the sink to pick up shards of the glass it was originally meant for.

‘I haven’t meditated today,’ she tells me.

I nod, although even at her calmest I associate Josie with random, symbolic breakages. And I can see by the four unemptied bags on the kitchen table that, assuming she still practices non-attachment, binge shopping still acts as a safety valve.

‘Everyone’s a work in progress,’ she says now. Neither has she lost the knack of reading my face, then expressing my thoughts for me.

Her flat is ex-council. The walls of the kitchen are painted orange, the floor boards light blue. She bought it nine months ago and it already bears her stamp, a sort of Camden take on Tibet.

‘The space you make around you is a manifestation of your habits,’ she explained, the first time I came there, when she saw me looking round. ‘This place is the person I’ve become.’

When she said that, I wondered if she meant she wasn’t getting depressed any more. Josie believes that cheerful colours ward off hungry ghosts. Now she sits down opposite me and gives me one of her smiles, which haven’t changed either. Somehow when Josie smiles at you it’s like she has the power to include you in the world, however excluded you might otherwise be feeling. She knows I’m rebuilding my life, and from what I can see she’s never stopped building hers. We’re doing the same thing, just from different places. I look round again.

‘There’s a really good vibe here,’ I say, and for a moment feel sad. It’s not that I’m jealous, but seeing someone established in their home suddenly fills me with longing: for things in the past that mainly didn’t happen, and things in the future that probably won’t either.

‘You’ll make one too when you’re settled,’ Josie reassures me.

But getting settled might take a while. When I moved in six weeks ago Josie came round to my ‘in need of modernisation’ bolt hole above an ailing curry house, to offer suggestions. I could see she was sensing all sorts of things, but not putting them into words. I keep telling myself I’m very lucky to have a place in my circumstances, but, since I’ve moved in, post break-up bleakness seems to follow me round like a needy flat mate.

Now I catch sight of her battered old guitar, covered in stickers, in the hall.

‘Do you still go busking?’ I ask.

‘Not any more – you have to buy a licence now, and that costs more than you can make working every Saturday for a month.’

Busking was one of the four jobs Josie had when we first met.

‘That’s a portfolio career,’ I’d said.

She just shrugged. ‘I come from Cornwall. We invented them.’

The other jobs were: receptionist in a mental health charity, something about statistics that she could do from home, and life modelling at an art college a bus ride away. It struck me that there was something diffuse about this, almost a way of avoiding definition. But when I put this to her all she said was, ‘How else would I pay the mortgage?’ I’ve since realised that Josie is only ever esoteric on her own terms.

Which include unlimited scope to give me advice.

‘Don’t go straight onto Tinder,’ she says now. ‘What you need is time to stabilise.’

‘Who was it said the only stable state is death?’ I feel I should have the right to deal with my misery in my own way.

Josie frowns at me. ‘Stability does not have to be inertia,’ she says, closing the subject.

I appreciate the distinction, but it seems to me that Josie’s personal relationships are neither stable nor inert. Roz, Jasmine, Bethan and Angie have all passed through in the time I’ve known her, each with their own particular turbulence. Then, somehow, in the aftermath they managed to morph into friends. I admire this, but am never quite sure how it works.

My life follows a different pattern. I always think I’ll be happier in a relationship until I’m actually in one, and subsequent friendship has yet to be an option. Despite this I find myself hoping for some imaginary redemption in the next person I meet. I suspect Josie doesn’t harbour such illusions.

‘I knew she wasn’t right for you.’ Josie is stirring her coffee. ‘But there was no point in saying.’

‘What did you think was wrong with her?’ I ask. ‘And by the way you did say.’

We’re talking about Melanie, my ex. I’m aware that I’m in that irrational but compelling phase of a break-up in which, despite all evidence, the person you recently split from suddenly seems ideal again.

Josie taps her spoon and lays it on the table. A small residue of coffee soaks into the untreated pine. There are similar stains nearby, evidence, to my current state of mind, of the sort of easy domesticity that is always likely to elude me.

‘She played on your dependency,’ Josie says, emphatically. ‘You like to be around strong women, but you let them take you over.’

Something about Josie’s presence makes this hard to argue with, and I find myself compiling a list of the mistakes I made in my last relationship. Somewhere near the top would be: thinking a straight woman (i.e. Melanie) would not feel threatened by a gay woman (i.e. Josie). Not far below that would be: thinking a friend, albeit of sporadically assertive character, would not feel possessive of our friendship in such a way as to undermine my new relationship. And, far from least: imagining that if I go somewhere relatively distant with my new partner things will be sure to get better.

‘And you can be too idealistic,’ Josie continues.

I balk at this. ‘That’s like having your human rights record criticised by Kim Jong Un. I try to be positive about people, that’s all.’

Josie inclines her head graciously. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘That’s what confuses you.’

In fact, right from the outset, Josie has benefited from my belief in looking for the best in others. She first entered my consciousness at two minutes past seven on a quiet Thursday morning. Until that point the next fifty-eight minutes had been pretty much mapped out. I would spend them sitting on the floor as part of a human circle, observing my breath, seeking higher consciousness, and trying not to sleep.

The team that ran the Dharma Centre had been quite clear: front door locked at 7am, and a policy of no further admittance. It was obvious from the persistent thud of the felt-muted door knocker that someone thought this unreasonable. I kept my eyes closed, and eventually heard the door open and footsteps entering the room.

‘Wasn’t that great?’ a voice next to me said at the end of the hour. I opened my eyes, stretched my back and tried to return circulation to my legs. A cheerful looking person in a long shapeless sweater of bright, unmatching, hand-knitted stripes was sitting next to me. Her coarse flaxen hair was cut in discernible layers and stood out from her scalp like thatch. This transpired to be Josie. I’ve since recognized that she was in one of what she called her ‘imperturbable’ moods, which mostly seem to follow meditation or several cups of coffee. But then I didn’t know that, and as I looked at her sitting there, my only thought was it was as if the sun shone out of her.

Somehow I’m reminded of this as we sit in her kitchen, though her hair is cropped short and even, and she’s wearing a plain white linen shirt. She smiles to acknowledge that my mind has been somewhere else.

‘There aren’t any rules now,’ she says. ‘Every time you start a new relationship you have to write another script.’

I think about this. ‘There’s a pattern to my relationships,’ I point out. ‘Perhaps I write the same script each time.’

Josie sighs, not unkindly, at my obtuseness.

‘I don’t think you write one at all. What I meant is you might try to and see what happens. And anyway, you have to find the right sort of person who’s willing to do it with you.’

I’m still thinking about this when I get back home and turn on my computer. Melanie’s email, nestling malevolently amongst the trivia of my inbox, is, unequivocally, vile. It drills effortlessly through the fragile carapace I was beginning to reconstruct and strikes the abundant well of my insecurities. The fact that it could have been intended to be nothing other than vile has two effects. Firstly, it robs me of any further possibility of seeing our relationship in a positive light. Secondly, it provides written evidence that, in this instance at least, Josie’s judgement is better than mine.

I’m not sure what happens after that. Perhaps I get up to make some food. Perhaps I wander round my new home, still full of unopened boxes. Perhaps I just sit there hoping the computer screen will do something positive, unprompted.

But the next thing I’m aware of is a thumping at the door. There’s something about it that makes me wonder if I’m at the Dharma Centre, just coming round from meditation. Then I hear a voice.

‘Open the fucking door.’

Because the voice is familiar the idea still makes sense. Then I realise I’m lying on my bed, and the whole area around my crotch is cold and damp. I’ve pissed myself.

Soon after this Josie enters holding a hooped length of two-point-five twin and earth, apparently her means of ingress, my Yale lock being situated right by my letterbox.

‘What the fuck’s going on?’ she says. ‘I’ve been calling you for two days.’ And then her face softens. ‘Oh honey, what’s happened?’

Next we’re sitting in my living room, and I’m sipping revoltingly sweet tea. I’m wearing clean clothes and the washing machine is on in the kitchen.

‘You’ve had a dissociative episode,’ Josie is telling me firmly. ‘I’ve read about them. You’re likely to feel confused for a while, because in the aftermath it can feel as if the world’s gone on without you.’

Even at my strongest I never developed immunity to Josie’s certainties, but in my current condition I have no resistance at all.

‘Frankly it has,’ I say, then try to describe the last things I remember.

‘You’re not familiar with this place,’ she continues, ‘and you wanted something from the past but the past let you down. You would have been in shock.’

I find myself looking at her face, which suddenly seems two dimensional, floating apart from the background of the wall, like a card figure in a toy theatre.

When I wake up, I’m in bed again, and Josie is still there. White curtains concertina around us and I can hear other voices. A tube is attached to my arm.

‘You dissociated again,’ Josie informs me. ‘But the consultant thinks there’s something medical going on too.’

For the next two days I have a comforting sense of being taken out of my responsibilities. Nurses peer through the curtains and say cheery things, and Josie visits me both evenings and suggests that this situation was brought about by my unconscious self seeking respite. I undergo various tests and allow myself to think. Josie, I realise, is still Josie, but more so. She seems to know exactly who she is. In contrast my own uncertainty feels like a vacuum. I wonder if the two things are related.

‘In your situation it’s very important to make a decision and then act on it.’

We’re sitting in Josie’s kitchen again. The tests revealed nothing and I’ve been discharged from hospital. It’s clear that she’s assuming personal responsibility for my welfare – during the short time I was away she has repainted my living room in Buddhist overtones, with a series of bright, uneven stripes at dado height.

‘It’s time we did something together,’ she says now. ‘You’re too retentive. You work from home so you go days without seeing anyone, and then you wonder why you struggle to deal with the world.’

‘That’s complete rubbish.’ I find I’m relieved that my capacity for outrage is returning. ‘Everyone tries things, and not all of them go well.’

‘Okay, then let’s do something that goes well.’

Less than two weeks later Josie lies across the sofa in her living room. I sit incongruously on a rug nearby, in the lotus position. A semi-circle of six people regard us, frowning and staring, then dab and scratch at the paper or canvas set on small easels before them. Both Josie and I are naked. She is clearly at ease – she’s done this before after all. In my anxiety I’ve forgotten to apply deodorant and can smell my own fear.

‘They’re willing to pay and the cash goes straight in your hand,’ Josie had said. ‘And I think the experience will liberate you from some of your inhibitions.’

In fact, as I sit here, wishing I’d chosen any pose except the one I have, my inhibitions crowd round me sharp elbowed, as if they’re in a contest to gain my attention.

‘Easy money,’ Josie is saying afterwards, as she counts a tenner and some coins into my hand. ‘And not one of them a perv. Don’t you feel better for that?’

In fact, my relief at having clothes on again feels something like euphoria, but I know not to tell her that.

‘Josie,’ I say instead, ‘thanks for everything, but I’m not doing this again. And I’m going home.’

‘What do you mean?’ Josie looks genuinely perplexed. ‘We’ve only just started and they’ve committed to six sessions. That’s another seventy-five quid in your paw, and you won’t know yourself after, you’ll feel so much freer.’

‘I’m sorry, Josie,’ I say. I put the fifteen pounds she has given me down on the table. ‘Just now I think I need some space.’

Josie looks at me as if I’ve said something inexplicable. For once she says nothing. I pick up my jacket and leave.

As I walk home I feel terrible. Whatever you say about Josie, she is special. No-one in my life has tried to help me more, and with nothing much to gain from it. I should be grateful. Perhaps, I think, I’m not the sort of person who can be helped.

And then I hear footsteps running after me. I turn and see Josie. As she draws near I see she’s holding a small, ancient-looking stone head.

‘I’ve got an idea,’ she says.

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo and a variety of other journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.

Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.