Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Ellen looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. The bruises were as fresh as they were yesterday, though perhaps a little darker purple in the middle. The colours would have been beautiful had they not been knuckle shaped injuries on her face. She wasn’t even going to attempt to cover them up with makeup, there was no point. And plus, even the gentle fanning of a brush across her skin was sure to be painful.
There had been a time where Ellen, twenty two going on forty, had looked in this very same mirror and saw herself as beautiful. She was pale, with a scattering of freckles across her button nose that almost matched the deep crimson colour of her natural hair. The mirror would reflect her perfect teeth as she smiled, her eyes gleaming with excitement for the days work ahead at the studio. That was barely a year ago and yet now she felt so old. Her hair had been bleached several times since then, and was damaged beyond repair. It had no personality, no character, and she simply tied it up in a knot at the back of her head, secured with bobby pins.
“Ellen!” came a voice from the bedroom behind her. “Put the damn kettle on, if you’re up!”
Ellen wanted to scream into the mirror but she didn’t want to make any noise. She opened her mouth wide and screamed silently for a few seconds before replying “Tea or coffee?”
The voice immediately shouted back “Coffee!”
Aside from the bruises on her face, Ellen was feeling good today. As good as she could be following what had happened yesterday. She crossed the hallway from the bathroom and entered the small kitchen. The tiles were cold beneath her bare feet - there’d been no heating since she’d forgotten to pay the bill. The gas was still on, thank God. She turned on the hob and checked there was enough water in the kettle before digging through the pile of washing-up in the sink to find the least dirty cups. In the bedroom, the man who the voice belonged to was climbing out of bed. Ellen listened to his footsteps as he practically stumbled into the hallway. The man’s name was Ian. Insufferable Ian, they called him at work, because, well, he was insufferable. But he didn’t know that any of the girls called him that, because he was the boss. And he had some very strong fists.
“You’re gonna wash that cup before you make my coffee, right?” He groaned, finally making it into the kitchen, his dressing gown loose.
“I’m not useless, Ian.” Ellen replied.
“You sure seem it to me. It’s a right pigsty here. No wonder you’re so miserable.”
“I don’t get time to clean it anymore.” She didn’t turn around to look at him as she maneuvered the cup round the mound of plates and bowls so that it would fit over the tap. “I’m always at work.”
Ian stretched his arms up, revealing thick black hair that definitely needed a shower, and yawned loudly. He practically fell into one of the kitchen chairs. “Bacon and eggs would be great, love.”
“I don’t have any bacon.” Ellen rinsed out the cup and placed it onto the kitchen counter, not bothering to dry it. She pulled open the cupboard and found a carton of six eggs from ASDA. It didn’t smell promising. “The eggs are expired. I can make toast.”
“Whatever.” Ian dismissed the thought. “I’ll stop off at a cafe on my way home.”
For a brief moment, a silence lingered in the air. Ellen savoured it as she carefully placed each egg in her food bin, careful not to crack them. She was thinking about leaving this town, her job, her friends, this goddamn flat, and running away somewhere. These kinds of thoughts often found their way to the front of her mind, but she never acted on them. Ellen wasn’t one for choices. She went with whatever happened to her without a struggle. If Ian had suddenly announced that he was moving the company to France and she had to go with him then she just would.
The whistle of the kettle disturbed her thoughts. There was only a little bit of coffee left so she tipped most of it into the cup. Ian didn’t take sugar, which was good, because she didn’t have any anyway. There was, however, milk in the fridge that miraculously was still in date. She poured just a dash into the cup followed by the boiling water. It splashed over the sides, a few drops hitting her wrists. It didn’t hurt, or maybe she just didn’t feel it.
Ian looked down at his coffee and raised his eyebrows. “Cheers.”
Ellen had forgotten to make herself a cup. Oh well, she didn’t want one now anyway. All she really wanted was to put one of her mother’s old CDs on and dance around the kitchen to it but Ian had snapped them all in half last night. They sat in a pile on top of her only bookshelf.
“Sorry about last night.” Ian finally acknowledged the elephant in the room as Ellen hovered awkwardly in limbo between the kitchen table and the counter, unsure of whether to sit down or lean against the cupboards. “You know how I get.”
“It’s fine. It’s not that bad.” She decided to lean against the cupboards.
Ian was not particularly ugly, but he wasn’t what Ellen would have looked for in a man. She liked to think that this was just temporary and that Ian was just a filler for someone better. He was almost as pale as she was, and grew his hair out so that it reached his shoulders, but he never washed it so it just sat there like he was now. Lifeless.
“It’s the stress, you know? The business - we’ve lost a lot of customers, as you have probably noticed. And of course Carter decided to piss off back to America, where he belongs I may add. I don’t care that he left but it does mean I have to handle ALL the complaints and problems on my own now since none of your lot is up to that. Not that I complain - you girls are paid to lay there and look pretty, literally. But it’s a lot of work for one man -”
It was raining outside. Ellen fancied running out of the flat, down the stairs and into the street to let the rain cleanse her. Her mother used to say the rain could heal you. Maybe not the physical bruises on her face but the ones in her heart and her veins and her mind. Ian was still talking.
“Are you even listening to me, or are you listening to yourself in that stupid head of yours?” He grumbles, holding his coffee up to his lips. “I don’t know what goes on up there, El. You’re not like the other girls. They’re empty, you’re full.”
“I like to imagine that it gets better.”
Ian laughed, spitting out coffee onto the already stained table. “That what gets better? Life? What’s wrong with your life.”
Ellen didn’t answer.
Ian rose from his chair slowly, keeping his eyes on her. “Don’t you like working for me?”
“Not particularly. But I’ve never really kept that a secret.”
The cup, still half full, smashed against the wall behind her head. Lukewarm coffee splashed the back of her neck. She barely flinched. That was her favourite cup. Ian flew across the room towards her, his hands instantly finding their way to her throat. They weren’t the hands of a strong man, but an angry man.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood today!” Ellen could smell his breath, it was rotten, with yesterday’s dinner still clinging to his back teeth. “I can appreciate the joke. But if you don’t enjoy working with me, you can always quit.”
“You know I can’t.” Her words escaped as a jagged whisper, his hands tightening around her jugular. She wanted to spit in his face so badly, but she knew she’d just end up with more bruises.
Ian finally let go, but he didn’t step back. He started laughing. “I’m going to get dressed. And you’re also going to get dressed. And then we’re going to get breakfast, stop off at my house to get my stuff, and then we’re going to work. And you’re going to look beautiful and smile and wave and shut up. Got it?”
“Perfect!” He moved away from her, a smile plastered across his face. “That’s why I love you, El. You do what you’re told.”
It was raining harder now, the water drumming a steady rhythm against the kitchen window. Ellen supposed she should get dressed, but she wanted to listen to the music of the sky. She moved slowly away from the cupboards, her muscles stiff and aching, towards the window. Looking down at the street below, she could see a neighbour standing in his dressing gown talking to a police officer. Probably about all the noise last night. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had reported it to the police. The officer waved his hands in dismissal and walked back to his car, which was parked on the corner.
Take me with you! Ellen shouted in her head. Put on your flashing lights and sirens and make a scene and tell the world I’m escaping my little flat!
But the police car drove away, and it didn’t put its sirens or lights on. It just rolled into the early morning traffic, alongside every other person in a rush to get to work or to drop their kids at school.
“Something smells off in your bedroom.” Ian remarked, coming back into the room, now fully dressed. “I think a rat might have died in the skirting boards or something. You need to clean this place - it’s a dump.”
Ellen sighed quietly and shrugged her shoulders. “I just don’t have the time.”
“Go get dressed, we need to leave in a minute!”
She obliged, and slunk into her bedroom. The duvet cover was hanging half off the bed, and the pillows were strewn across the floor. Her wardrobe was in the far corner, the doors hanging off its hinges. There were only a few things hanging in there, nothing excited. When had been the last time she'd bought herself something nice? Years ago now. She badly wanted to spend all her money on a fancy, white ball gown, just to spin around in it. It didn’t have to be an expensive one. She just wanted to feel like a princess.
The only dress in her wardrobe was the short black one. She pulled it off the hanger and held it out in front of her. It was creased, and a little stained, and very old. Her mother had bought her this dress for her school leavers dance. That was six years ago now. It felt like a different lifetime. A different Ellen had worn that dress, had danced at that dance. She threw it onto the bed and began to pull off her large t-shirt. What smell is he on about? She thought, sniffing the air. She couldn’t smell anything new, just the same damp, mouldy scent she was used to. How would rats get up onto the third floor?
“Can you smell it?” Ian appeared in the doorway, brushing his teeth with her toothbrush. He was spitting toothpaste all over her carpet.
“You’re probably just used to it - a creature must have rotted away somewhere in here. Look under the bed, hang on.” He disappeared for a second, and Ellen heard him spit into the sink.
She dropped to the floor, half-naked, and threw the duvet and pillows back onto the bed. Beneath the sagging double bed was her own pale and bruised face, staring blankly back at her.