by Cath Holland

The shout wakes me so abruptly air pinches my eyeballs. The book I fell asleep to slips from my knee. Feels like I’m falling with it. I don’t know exactly how a well-thumbed paperback from a charity shop on the high street took me to a pavement café on a summer’s day so many miles away from home, but it did. I felt safe in that place. I was happy, the air fragrant with basil and warm with chatter in a welcoming foreign tongue.

A second howl even louder this time yanks me upright and before I can think I’m on my knees at my open bedroom window. A full fat moon glows, picks out two silhouettes in the road, noses almost touching but not quite. Squinting, I make out the couple from number twenty three. One man, one woman stood close. Not leaning on each other all kissy and tipsy or copping a sly feel but having a row so blazing it burns.

‘What’s his name, Sian? Tell me his fucking name, will you?’

I never knew the woman who dresses nice and is so polite to me—her mouth stretches into a tiny, brief smile when I let on in the mornings—is called Sian. And watching him park the car or putting the bins out each Thursday you’d not imagine for one minute he slurs his curses so thickly, underscores the most vulgar with the tip of his finger.

Sian’s neck shrinks inch by inch at each word, her shoulders squashing her earlobes. Wraps her arms around herself, pulls tight, curls her spine into a shell easily cracked open, soft meat scraped and cleaned right out. Him, he’s taller after midnight, and broader. Watching his mouth so close to her face makes my own skin itchy and damp. She stays put, her feet nailed right down. Irritation bruises my breast bone. I can’t watch a woman who won’t help herself and the man who refuses to stop or shut up for even a handful of seconds. I pull the window closed as gently, softly as I can. His head jerks towards my house, hers too seconds later. She’s got charcoal smudges for eyes. I dip down below the windowsill, count to one hundred precisely.

I won’t sleep, so scrabble around on the carpet fumbling for a comforter. My fingers find my book and open it. The spine cracks. I settle in my bed. Try my very best to find the page and place I was at, and feel that buttery European morning on my cheek again. I focus on black ink on white, skim past familiar words already digested. The printed page is so pretty, I always think. Letters going up and down, straight backed, reliable, clean breaks between words, links in a chain. I follow one after another, hold my breath, ready to drift, eyes floating from word to word, place to place, world to world. Here we go. I’m ready for the pull, the taste, the familiar fug of trust, the one that says I’ll be away with them soon, back to the sunshine.

It doesn’t come.

My eyes stutter and stumble. Punch drunk lettering blocks my way. Real heels smash against concrete. Knuckles move fast in the moonlight. Ink drips, dribbles from the page and wets my slippery fingers.

I slide the bookmark into place. Turn my pillow cool side up and punch it harder than it needs. Close my eyes, and pull the duvet right up to my chin.

Sian and her fella making up, lip on lip and hip against hip, noses bumping in the moonlight? I imagine wine making their bed soft tonight. Opposites attract, him so tall and wide and her so not. That’s what I like the most about the dark. It makes everything and anything possible.

Out on the pavement, there’s a squeal no sealed window can shut out.

I dive right into more thoughts buried way down, and wait for something good to happen. It’s comfy behind closed eyelids. Nice. No words. It’s cosy. Wish I’d stayed here from the offset. From now on I’m minding my own sodding business, that’s what. But here in my bed, tucked up and swaddled safe, arms crossed against my chest, palms on shoulders, thick brick walls boxing me in, a locked door downstairs, chain on and everything, all I can think is my God, how loud is my breathing.

Cath Holland is a writer of fiction and fact based on Merseyside. She is published in Mslexia, Know Your Place – Essays on the Working Class (Dead Ink Books), Story Cities (Arachne Press), NFFD anthologies, Fictive Dream, Spontaneity and lots more beautiful places in print and online. Twitter: @cathholland01