by Steven John
My head aches and my mouth tastes of sex. November wind and rain slamming the bedroom window like a carwash, sky like mushroom soup. Sodden leaves from the roadside lime trees floating like jellyfish, then beaching themselves on windows or cars in the residents’ parking two floors below. I listen to the traffic. The dismal shush, shush of tyres through water. I hear morning television in the sitting room next to my bedroom. Bursts of pop music, the presenter’s inane laughter, and commercials. My flatmate Rhys has surfaced. No alarm clocks on a Saturday.
Beside me in bed there’s a naked girl, asleep. Her fleecy blond hair squashed flat between her cheek and the pillow. On the other side her hair is mussed up into the cold, damp air, soft as thistle down. I touch gently onto it like a child feeling his mother’s ball of wool. Springy, bed-warm. Her sooty eye-shadow and plum lipstick smudged, last night’s sweet breath gone sour. I look at the inverted nipple she’s so sensitive about. It turns inwards like a small boy’s. She won’t let me try to suck it out. I don’t know why she’s so uptight about it, it’s only a nipple. I think about trying to suck it out whilst she’s sleeping but don’t want to wake her.
I find my gown and open the bedroom door into the sitting room. Rhys has lit the mobile gas heater and moved it as close to his chair as possible without singeing the fabric. The condensation from the gas has soaked the inside of the thin sash-windows. Over the back of a dining chair Rhys has hung a pair of newly-washed jeans that steam from the heat. He’s warming both hands around a mug of tea. Like me, he’s in a gown with the addition of a pair of ski-socks. Rhys is in the process of moving out. He and his girlfriend Shirley have been shifting boxes and bits of furniture every weekend for the last three. They’ve bought a flat together, right across the road. I can see it from the window, over the lines of cars stopping and starting at the traffic lights.
‘Final push today?’ I ask.
‘What the fuck happened?’ he answers.
He jerks his thumb over his shoulder at the table pushed against the wall. There are dirty plates, burnt down candles on congealed wax plinths, broken wine glasses. All have been swept aside in a heap. On the floor – a smashed wooden chair, both its rear legs broken.
‘Was someone taken hostage?’ Rhys asks.
I don’t recall how the chair was broken. A volume of drink had been taken, judging by the empty bottles on the carpet and the opened bottle of brandy. I guess I mounted the chair somehow, searching for purchase between Teresa’s legs. She has a thing about tables. Earlier, she’d sashayed into the kitchen where I was preparing a Chinese. She wanted to show me her new mini skirt. We started kissing. My hands wandered up underneath – she has a habit of going without knickers around the flat. We did it on the kitchen table amongst the spring onions and chopped ginger.
‘I should be gone by tonight,’ Rhys says.
Down the hallway I can hear Shirley’s hair-dryer. They both take a lot of time over hair. She’ll come out of Rhys’s bedroom looking like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That’s why I don’t want to wake Teresa till Shirley’s gone. Teresa will look like she’s been doing it on the tables.
I slouch into the kitchen and drop a teabag into a stained mug. There’s a small window overlooking the shared patch of grass where residents take their dogs to shit. Over the high brick wall there’s a row of horse chestnuts lining the side-road. Two boys are collecting conkers, oblivious to the rain, their bikes laid on the grass verge. Rhys and I did the same thing once. We lived close to each other on the same housing estate, have known each other since infant school. I went to college, he to university, but we’re together again now, the odd couple, Jack Lemmon and Walter Mattheu. Rhys is the one with the brains and ironed shirts.
Teresa appears at the entrance to the kitchen. She leans her shoulder against the doorframe, crosses her bare legs at the knee. She’s wearing one of my shirts and I see the outline of a bra. That nipple thing again. She’s naked from the waist down. She wouldn’t have cared about walking past Rhys. I consider asking her to go put on some knickers. Rhys has seen Teresa like this before but I don’t know how Shirley will react. But then Shirley won’t be here for much longer. Nor Rhys. After two years of sharing. No Rhys.
During the week when there’s no Shirley or Teresa, Rhys and I go out on the town. Some weeks we go to a nightclub every night. We’ve brought girls back. Or rather Rhys has brought two girls back, one for each of us. He’s good at making girls laugh. He says I need to lighten up. In the evening I get home before Rhys and cook us a meal even though Rhys says I can’t cook. We tell each other the stories of the night before and swear we’re going to have a night in playing backgammon, until it gets to around ten o clock and the pubs will soon be closing, and we say “fuck it,” put on clean shirts and jump in the car.
When Rhys told me he was going, I said, ‘So what are you going to do every night? Stay in and watch television like marrieds?’
‘Fuck off. Nothing changes. Shirley comes out with us that’s all,’ he said.
I lead Teresa by the hand back to my bedroom. I didn’t think I’d want more of her this morning. We step over the broken chair and bottles on the carpet.
‘I’ll let you keep the table and chairs,’ Rhys says.
‘Don’t go without saying goodbye,’ I say.
‘I’m only over the road for fucks sake,’ Rhys says. ‘Wave at me from your bed.’
I wake to a soft knocking on my bedroom door. My watch says mid-afternoon and already the light outside is fading. The air is cold and animal; lizards in a tank.
‘We’re off, mate.’ It’s Rhys, trying to whisper.
I wrap on a gown, open the door. Rhys is there with his hand outstretched, Shirley behind him. Her face made up like a watercolour painting. Teresa daubs it on in oils. I shake Rhys’s hand. Shirley pecks me on the cheek but I won’t have a kiss mark. Shirley doesn’t leave kiss marks.
‘You’re only going over the road,’ I say.
‘Come see us if ever you get out of bed,’ he says.
I walk into Rhys’s bedroom. Shirley has vacuumed and left a white plastic air-freshener in the corner. On the one remaining piece of furniture Rhys has left me his backgammon set with a note that that says “Enjoy.” On the wall behind where Rhys’s double bed was, there’s a large damp patch in the wallpaper the shape of Africa. If l re-let his room, I’ll need to re-decorate and have the roof repaired.
‘We could move into this room. It’s much larger than yours.’ Teresa stands in the doorway, in one of my white work shirts and nothing else.
‘I’m going to run you home,’ I say. And there’s no “we” I think.
In the car Teresa says, ‘I’m glad Rhys has gone. We’ll have the place to ourselves. And no Shirley with her airs.’
‘And knickers,’ I say.
I drop Teresa outside her house.
‘Pick me up next Friday,’ she says
‘I don’t know about next weekend,’ I say. ‘I may be stripping wallpaper.’
But I do know.
I drive straight back to Rhys’s new place. Outside the front door there’s one of those panels with names and buttons. Rhys has already put his and Shirley’s surnames in the metal slot. I press the button and wait. I know he’s in because his car is next to mine.
‘It’s me Rhys,’ I say.
‘Mate, Shirley’s cooked dinner. Candles, the works. New place. Come back in an hour.’
I sleepwalk around my flat and draw curtains, light the gas fire, turn on the television. There are lights on in Rhys’s block but I don’t know which is his. None of them look candlelit. I collect up the chair bits and put them out for the rubbish. I pile dishes in the sink, sweep the broken glass into my hand and drop it into an unbroken one, pour a brandy, sit in Rhys’s chair.
I think about placing an ad in “Room to Rent.” Ask Rhys to sift the applicants for me. Choose the girl he would’ve gone for. Maybe a girl like Shirley.
Steven John’s writing has appeared in Riggwelter, Spelk, Fictive Dream, Cabinet of Heed, EllipsisZine, Ghost Parachute and Best Microfiction 2019. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record six times and has been nominated for BIFFY 2019. He lives in The Cotswolds, England.