by Cath Bore

The party is full of laughter and chatter and elbows and jostling. A friend of a friend of a neighbour has moved into a flat four roads up from mine, and all are welcome. Open bottles of wine and craft ale, and party nibbles from the frozen food shop on the high street are laid out on a table covered with torn lengths of kitchen paper. The onion bhajis and samosas and miniature burgers-in-a-bun taste as cardboard as the box they come in. The empty box is open and end-up on the floor and some lad’s using it as an ash tray. It fizzes every time he flicks his roll up. The air sick and sour and flat, someone’s sucking on a big fat joint right in the middle of the room and going, “shhh! Don’t grass me up” to every woman under 30. Bad food, bad tunes and trash talk, so much noise and stink, I can’t hear myself think. I’ll get off soon. It’s not far off midnight, and nothing good happens after midnight, everybody knows that.

Yet as you edge into the flat, I stretch my neck to see. A huge chunk of a bloke with tap water breath sees me lean over and says he knows you, ‘actually,’ and you’re ‘a bit of a dick.’ He lists examples why, takes a breath after reason number seven so I grab my chance, and escape. I pick up snatches of scandal as I move across the room. The chatter is all about you. You’re always getting into trouble someone says, loudly. My ears ring with delicious gossip, and we’re face to face before I know it. I don’t expect this, but you’re quite posh. Your words are few, but rounded and full and precise with a polished finish. I don’t like posh as a rule, definitely not posh who looks like he sleeps in his clothes, rumpled and untucked. You wear too small clothes on purpose, I can tell, and there’s a tattoo peeking out from under your sleeve. I’m thinking maybe the dick thing might be right; close up, you remind me of someone I used to know. He wasn’t a small talk kind either. I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. Wherever in the restaurant he was, or I was, I saw him. It was like he followed me. But he lives in the past, and right in the here and now we—you and me—are in a rented flat in London, one not long painted. He conceded to no one, not me anyway, yet you bend at the waist like a gentleman to hear me speak. With a spine so straight you bow low, your eyes are two rounds of blue tinged glass, closing in. Your breath is damp and warm and welcome on my face. When someone shoves past I fall forward on purpose, my fingers pressing onto your muscle and long, strong bone. My insides dissolve into liquid smoke. Your pulse thrums in time with my own, they are so loud together I swear people must hear, and know. We walk out of this place, you slowing your pace to match mine.

Your room when we get there is scary for a single, solitary minute. There’s a pause as I teeter on the brink of making a run for it. But I take the leap.

I know I’m in trouble from the first lick. You smell of sweet sweat and taste so right, like bitter honey. Your curious narrow bed curves and holds me firmly, under my hips and around each knuckle of vertebrae and both shoulder blades. Tiny diamonds above speckle like stars, and the world around us softens to velvet. There are so many velvets, who knew? There’s one I like the best in the early hours, it’s so beautiful and soft and perfect it makes me cry. But it can’t stay. It vanishes, moving on with the hours, gone where, I’m not sure. Moonlight slips in through the high sash windows, and the charms on your arms sharpen and clear. I wish they wouldn’t. I don’t want to read what you paid money to have printed on you. I want unbranded skin, fresh flesh that’s mine.

It’s never bothered me before, the cruelty of a new day, snuffing out the previous without pause, and forcing me to see. With each blink we take, the room and the world get lighter, in massive leaps. How do we stop the new day happening? Undo our blinks, go back and back and make it midnight again? We can’t, and dawn is here before I want it. I leave without looking back, because looking back is a stupid idea. Outside is pure and you’re on the other side of a brick wall, a staircase and a solid, sturdy door but I can still smell you. So I fill my lungs with the morning’s air. My rib cage stretches as far as my bones can go and I gulp that air, yet you’re on me, a stubborn perfume, molecules breaking away at every step, bombs hitting the ground and exploding at my feet.

They talked about you a lot at that party. It carries on, I reckon, even now. The stoner was never going home anytime soon, not with such a captive audience. I wonder if they’re still eating those shit snacks and gassing about us, or if they’re lounging about in a hangover haze. There was a pair of lips slathered in livid red lipstick mouthing words at me, saying your big problem—on top of everything else—is that you don’t look a woman in the eyes. You hide behind your everywhere hair, stare like she’s not there, or over her shoulder, into the pillow. Those red lips spat out the words like bullets. If only they spoke the truth. How easier it would be to not to know your irises swell to black in the space of a single kiss.

In my bathroom at home I flip open the lid of a bottle of mint and tea tree shower gel. My mum has a mint plant in her garden and in the summer the air around it is so fresh I didn’t believe for ages that it came from such tiny green leaves. I squeeze the bottle. A weak, minty fart escapes. It’s empty, as near as. I grab shower gel “for men”. It carries the vague aroma of petrol. The petrol and water sluice and sluice, yet you’re on me still. I take a bath, a long one. You float in and on the fermenting water and stick to me no matter how quick I stand up.

As I dress, the clock ticks on the wall. The sun rises up in the sky and warms the world. The morning is so bright and white it shows every crumb of what’s unclean. It bleaches, and scours away the dirt. It throws a tongue of light on me and, in a sudden gasp, you’re gone, no warning. And that’s fine. It’s ok, and how it’s got to be. I’m grateful for it. It’s better this way. So I think. But the path of the day feels wrong, its balance off kilter. The minutes today are short, efficient, like wipers on a windscreen going left to right and back again they shine glass into crystal, with no marks or smears. The minutes take care of themselves, fair enough but, my God, the hours struggle. The hours have nothing in them. They’re flat and dry and brittle. They might break and crumble at any second, then what? Nothing will be left. So I fill them with words for my brain and music for my heart and a spray of fragrance for my senses. But the sentences are jumbled and the music holds a repetitive beat and the parfum is chemicals by numbers, each easily marked. The hours stretch out in even longer yawns, one after another, so many it hurts my jaw.

I know what’s missing so I give in, in the end. I close my eyes to know you again, think back 24 hours precisely to the chew of the party food between my teeth, the lukewarm Cabernet Sauvignon way better after the first glass, the woman with the scarlet lipstick having a go. She was real, and the laughing dickhead with the comedy spliff. It kept going out and he had to keep lighting it. It’s gone midnight when my tongue tingles, at the very tip, in warning. The minutes move, but so slowly this time. There are gaps between each single sixty second block. Then, in a delicious thick flood, your honeyed tang fills my mouth. It releases your scent, broadens its notes, and thickens into a chemical cosh. My head is heavy with it. I swear you’re on the inside of my wrists and pouring out of me. You’re on the base of my throat and in my blood, my heart pumping you around my insides. It’s painful, letting you back in, the rush of it. Of course it is. But it’s a pain I can live with. The kind I can’t live without. We’re skin on skin. I’m shrouded in velvet again. And I know for sure that when tomorrow comes, because it will, and my world smells of nothing again and goes still and silent, and even if the sharp daylight hurts my eyes and bleaches you from my world I’ll never forget you, my boy, I’ll never forget you ever.

Cath Bore (now writing as Cath Holland) is a writer of fiction and fact in Liverpool, published in Mslexia, NFFD anthologies, The Word For Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating Women’s Suffrage (Retreat West, Nov 2018), Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class (Dead Ink Books 2017), DUSK: Solstice Shorts (Arachne Press 2018).

Twitter: @cathholland01

For September Slam writers were invited to submit stories based on the following prompt provided by writer, novelist and publisher Nicholas Royle: “I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room.” 

Nicholas Royle is the author of three short story collections – Mortality (Serpent’s Tail), Ornithology (Confingo Publishing), The Dummy and Other Uncanny Stories (Swan River Press) – and seven novels, most recently First Novel (Vintage). He has edited more than twenty anthologies and is series editor of Best British Short Stories (Salt). Reader in Creative Writing at the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, he also runs Nightjar Press and is head judge of the Manchester Fiction Prize.

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks.