“I think we can do a little better than that, can’t we, Mrs Hope?”

Stella’s knees crumbled underneath her and she clung to the railings so she wouldn’t fall. She wouldn’t let her physiotherapist see her fail, not again. 

“Have you been doing your exercises at home?”

“Yes,” panted Stella. “It’s hard to remember sometimes -“

“You can’t make excuses, you know.”

“Well maybe if I hadn’t just spent three months in a coma, I wouldn’t have so much trouble remembering!”

The physiotherapist averted her eyes, and Stella wondered when these people began to lose their sense of humanity. It had been the same when her father was dying of cancer. He’d lost his appetite, and Stella and her brother had been shocked to discover it was because the cancer was filling his insides, spreading like the roots of some cursed tree inside his torso. The doctor who’d rolled his eyes at their innocence and ignorance had forgotten that ordinary people didn’t know these things. 

Stella thought of her father’s legs, once so strong, withered and shrivelled. She pulled herself up, picked up her bag, and stormed out with all the dignity she could summon. 

The walk to the car park was excruciating. When the car had slammed into her six months ago, Stella had been thrown into the air and, upon landing, had fractured her skull, all the bones on the left side of her body, and punctured her left lung. 

She couldn’t even remember why she’d stepped out like that. She was usually so careful. 

Pulling out her car keys, she noticed a shabby-looking basket at the entrance to the car park, overflowing with the remnants of summer flowers. She didn’t know what kind they were, but she stopped to admire their fading red vibrancy. 

Stella took her phone out to snap a picture and saw she had a message from her husband. A jolt of revulsion rocked her stomach and she ignored it. Another thing she didn’t understand since the accident. 

Back in the warmth of her car, she saved the photograph of the flowers to an album entitled ‘Crimson’. Ever since she’d come out of the coma, she’d found herself obsessed with the colour. She knew she was looking for a particular shade – bright red, blue undertones, a hint of pink in there – but she didn’t know why. 

Stella and Mark hadn’t been planning to decorate, so it couldn’t be that. She’d already bought her clothes for their holiday in Tuscany, nobody’s birthday was coming up…

Stella swiped idly through the album of flowers, scarves, paintings she’d seen. On the radio, The Kills were playing. ‘The Search for Cherry Red.’ No, it wasn’t cherry red she wanted, either. She turned it off in irritation. 

Mark wasn’t sure that Stella should be going out so soon, but in five years, she’d never missed his firm’s Christmas party, and she didn’t intend to start now. As she dressed for the evening – a long, black, one-shouldered gown that cleverly concealed the worst of her injuries, she thought feverishly of all the different shades of red she would encounter that night. From Tony the MD’s terrible Santa suit to Rachel’s traditional outlandish Christmas manicure, she would be able to take her pick. She’d synced her phone to free up storage. Mark had smiled at how excited she was. Stella wondered how he’d react if he knew the real reason. 

It was the first time she’d seen any of Mark’s colleagues since the accident. Gavin and Manjeet jokingly wrapped some silver tinsel around her crutch, and Julie made a terrible fuss of her, ensuring she had plenty to drink. 

“Go easy, love,” Mark frowned. “Think of all those pain meds!”

“It’s my first night out in months, I can have a couple of drinks!” Stella replied. 

This was nice. This was normal. If Lynsey the hypochondriac was to be believed, Stella wasn’t even the worst off at that party. 

After almost half an hour of listening to the woman chunter on about her irritable bowel and her migraines and her recurrent tonsillitis and her piles and her ingrown toenails, Stella realised that Mark was no longer by her side. She strained to look for him, and managed to slip away when Lynsey latched onto a newcomer. 

This was familiar. This was unpleasant. Stella felt the revulsion she’d felt at seeing her husband or his name the last three months churning in her belly as she walked, and she knew that she’d walked exactly this way six months earlier, for the exact same purpose, only with no crutch to keep her steady.

Mark was half-hidden behind a pillar at the far end of the corridor. A woman was with him – tall, blonde, her hair flowing over her shoulders like the cheap champagne they were serving back in the party. Stella couldn’t move. She wanted to see it all, but then the woman saw her, and she and Stella’s husband broke apart. 

Stella fled. She had only been in the ladies’ toilets a few moments when the woman caught up with her. 

“Stella, it’s not what you think…”

She proceeded to rime off the rest of the cliches while Stella gripped the white enamel basin. She tried to focus on the expensive hand wash in the heavy, white, porcelain dispenser, the identical hand cream, the fabric of the footstool in the mirror behind her…

And then she noticed the woman’s lipstick. Bright red, with blue undertones, just a hint of pink. 

“…we didn’t mean for you to find out, and then when you caught us back at the summer party  – we both felt so bad, we felt like it was our fault you’d run out into the road like–”

The woman never managed to finish her sentence. Stella smashed the hand wash dispenser into the side of her head. Stella had a brain injury, she’d been plied with alcohol all night which had probably affected her medication, and her husband was cheating on her with the office tart. Hell, their affair had nearly killed her. No jury would possibly convict her. 

As her rival fell to the floor, Stella admired the flow of blood onto the pristine white tiles. The contrast settled the churning in Stella’s stomach as she settled into the feeling of a task completed. The woman’s blood was a deeper shade of crimson than the woman’s lipstick, but pleasing, nonetheless.  

Meet the Author

Frances Mulholland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Brave Voices, Mslexia, and others. She lives in Northumberland.