What it’s like to be lonely at night

at first, it is faint
like some underlying
sourness of milk
a lacking fullness
the creeping sense
of error before
the realisation of one

without a burst
there is a drip
a leak in the dark
it saturates you
turning your sheets
cold and leaden
and you wake up 

flooded

Middle 8

She had wanted to listen to that new Phoebe Bridgers album on the drive home from school. Just shy of 41 minutes, she knew she would be home before the penultimate track, but was prepared to sit in the car until its finish, if the album proved worth it.

She waited until she had driven out of the area entirely, before connecting Bluetooth and pressing the play button on her phone. The car stereo came slowly to life. She allowed it all to fade into obscurity, rounding the corner onto Fairfield: the gates of the school, the bus stop, the manicured hedgerow, and the smattering of parked Audi parents in gilets and floaty dresses, waiting for their kids.

NME had promised a sonic palette – something close to ethereal – and she would give the album her full attention.

But it was not to be. Looming in the distance, four yellow roadworks signs, and a subsequent diversion, had already interrupted some of the finer dissonances in Track 4, and the experience had, all at once, been marred. She pressed the power button on the car stereo and stared through the windscreen, listening only to the beginnings of flat patter on the glass, and waiting for the lights to go green. She would have to take Hedley, and avoid the A road altogether. 

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Time Spent and Trampoline

He’d been watching the kids play across the street for a while before the police had showed up. He didn’t know what time it was exactly, but knew she’d be here soon. She always came round after her Thursday shift.

The sun had dipped slightly out of sight, but the chill of evening had not yet cloaked the estate. In the distance, he could still hear lads kick a football outside the chippy. Washing no longer flapped on lines, but had yet to be taken in. The pubs hadn’t turned out, so he knew he had a while before his father returned, red-faced and heavy with lager. 

Near where he sat on the front step, pressed into the damp lip of an discarded Tennent’s, were the spent ends of three cigs. He calculated that he must have been perched there for at least 20 minutes when he saw the blues silently flickering towards the end of the road. 

The kids – two boys – were playing on a trampoline that took up the entirety of the square front yard of number 43. As they leapt about, it’s metal framework skittered and giggled across the concrete, echoing against the parallel walls of the estate. Two coppers exited the car. A man and a woman.

‘Is ya mam home?’ He inquired, attempting to peer through the nets of the living room window.

‘Nar.’ The eldest chirped, still leaping. ‘Can a wear your helmet?’

‘No, son.’

As he watched them, he stubbed his fourth tab and pushed it, along with the rest of the ends, into the hole of the tin, hearing it rapidly extinguish with a soft hiss.

Finding no answer to their knocking, the coppers looked around the estate and clocked him sitting on the front step – asked if he knew where the homeowner might be. He shrugged and they nodded, disheartened but unsurprised, returning to their peering and speculation.

She turned up shortly afterwards and, like usual, he hadn’t heard her soft tread on the pavement until she was almost stood in front of him. She lifted off her supermarket tabard, folding it under her arm, and took her place beside him without a word. 

‘How was the shift?’ He asked, handing her a tab from the pack by his feet.

‘Ugh.’ She grunted. ‘Can’t you just hurry up and win the lottery so we can get out of here?’

A flicker of pleasure ran up his back. He smirked.

‘I’m working on it, like.’ He said, handing her a fresh tin.

‘Your dad back yet?’ She asked, knowing the answer.

‘Not yet.’

‘Still got a bit left to piss away this month then.’

‘Wey the heating’s gone again, so I’m assuming he’s not far off.’

She snorted and shook her head, before indicating with her cigarette, nodding at the squad car across the road.

‘Don’t know.’ He replied, shifting slightly sideways, to give her more space. ‘That’s the third time they’ve been this week.’ 

She took the gesture, moving closer to him. He could feel the warmth of her side pressing against his.

‘Poor bairns.’ She muttered, shaking her head. ‘Bet they haven’t had any tea.’

‘Aye. She won’t be back for a while yet.’ He shook his head.

‘There’ll be nowt in, an’ all.’

The small muscles of her arm flexed as she brushed lint from her skirt. From the corner of his eye, he saw her mouth twitch in a downturn, as she chewed her lip and stared. Neither spoke or moved for a few minutes, each watching the inconsequential evening unfold around them. The police officers sat in their car, which was still parked nearby. The kids played.

In the stillness between them, she let the rest of the cigarette burn down and go out.

Last week, when they were drunk and he had kissed her, he had cupped his fingers around her face. It had made him feel like there was something tiny in his hands. A bird’s wing, a dried leaf. He imagined telling her that, and let out an involuntary laugh, knowing how she’d clout him if he ever said as much.

‘What you laughing at?’ She grinned, turning her face towards him. He kept looking forward and batted the question away. She turned away slowly and he stole a quick look as she picked a bit of ash from her shoe.

He let the memory return, as he had so often since. He had kept his eyes open during the whole thing, as if he’d needed proof of what was happening. He had watched her blue veins blur behind the petal thinness of her eyelids until they too had opened again. He remembered the feeling. That she might ebb away suddenly, like vapour, or a wavering ember, evading his grasp. He remembered the feeling, and the fear. He wondered if she had thought about it too.

She said nothing, and he felt the silence heavily. He opened his mouth, half hoping words might come without his knowing. When they didn’t, she sunk her head against her chest and yawned. By the time she raised it, he still had not spoken, and the long cylinder of ash that had amassed by the end of her knuckles fell like grey snow onto the ground. It was starting to get dark.

‘Right, well. I’d best be off. Mam’ll worry I’ve run away with the circus.’ 

But she did not move. Her inaction froze him, as he watched her purse her lips to the side, and rest her hands on her knees.

‘Aye, fair. You working tomorrow?’ He choked, at long last.

He was pleading, in his way, pretending he wasn’t. Like a dog, sniffing for scraps, thankful for any morsel she might drop from the obscure and unseeable surface of her mind. 

She nodded, sighed, and, finally, she stood. He wanted to snatch her back down, to pull at her arms, clutch her fingers, to wrap his hands around her narrow shoulders and press her to him like body armour: a shield against the salvo of regret her fated exit would unleash. 

But he did no such thing. She rounded the corner as silently as she came, though, this time, with no such surprise to him, and he watched her go. It was then he would notice that the street was quiet, the children across the road had since gone indoors. Soon, his father would return, and he would be out of time. 

Dream Shark Secret

Dream

The other night I dreamt you came into my house and wouldn’t leave. At first, I didn’t mind – we were just sitting together in my kitchen – but as I neared the dregs of my second cup of tea, I started to wonder when you planned to go. When I woke, I considered the parallel universe where we now somehow coexist: your keys in my fruit bowl; your hands on my bath taps; your feet on my couch. And in the haze of my morning I wasn’t sure what it had meant or whether it had even been a dream at all, and half expected to see you pass by, step-less and slight, like a ghost on the landing.

Shark

Finally! A good one. Can’t remember who asked. Who knows how these things come up, just go with it fast. Which creature would you least like to be killed by? If you had to. If you just had to. Doesn’t matter why. We dipped into silence, underwater in thought, each seeking an answer in the fashion we’d wrought. The lot of us sat in a circle of green bottles and spent ends, barely friends in a debauched fairy’s ring – and, for a second, not saying a thing. Godzilla doesn’t count. Then one spoke out. A grizzly bear. Why? You could just run. From a bear? You’re fucking joking, son. A few others offered and we talked through the zoo. But I didn’t have to think – I already knew. How, being frozen in the deep, I’d die thinking of you, as it swam, torpedoed steel, and took what it wanted. It’s eyes gloss and haunted. I wondered if you’d feel it burst you apart. Turn your organs to mulch. Teeth through the heart. After a while, we spilled beer, and turned to something new, but I sat for a while, and thought of the blue, of the dark and of death, and of it, and of you. 

Secret

Later on, as I’m walking back to the station, I remembered when she used to do her lists. They started years back, before she started ditching mass, before she started pinching things – even before Nan. She would spend hours somewhere secret, because I never saw her do it, writing list after list of all the families we knew – our neighbours’ families, our teachers’ families, our friends, their mothers and fathers, families off the telly, their names, their ages, aunties, uncles, cousins – all the many ways in which they belonged to one another. All the families we had ever known, all but our own, hidden away in drawers and under mattresses for years. In that quiet house, I always found them, and when she didn’t think I was in, or if she didn’t think I could hear her, she would cry, and no one ever came. 

Carrying

It was like lugging a dead cow, and that was the way we would forever describe it. All four of us had heaved it, the great patterned reject: digging our fingers into the threadbare fabric of the arms and sweating, our faces red and determined. Two at each end, and another – less of a help –  trotting along near the middle. Every dozen yards or so, we’d stop, taking loud, open-mouthed breaths of chilled October air and grinning at one another, before tackling the next stint.

Shaun and Luke had calculated that it would take us about an hour to cart it from the layby outside Victoria Wines, where we’d found it, to Broan’s Field, behind Shaun’s house. 

‘An hour. How’d you work that out?’ Siobhan had scowled.  

‘Just worked it out like. Maths.’ Luke had shrugged.

‘You’re in red group for maths and your mam says you still can’t tell the time.’

‘Fuck off.’

Siobhan winked.

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The Old Men and the Sea

By the time we’d realised that there weren’t any glasses in the caravan, we were already pretty cut. As explained in the rental email, we found the keys under the garden statue of the stone frog, and had spent the first, hurried half hour dragging the bags in from the car and lining our stomachs, before we started on the wine. This decision had been one of convenience, rather than particular taste, as it had been easier to locate the green bottles, clanking in the boot, than the vodka, which had been pilfered from Fran’s older brother, stuffed in a pillowcase, and hidden in the depths of her suitcase. 

We hadn’t noticed the absence of glasses, because the protocol with wine was to drink straight from the bottle. We’d seen that photo of Rod Stewart and David Bowie doing the same thing and never looked back, but the spirits would need something for mixing. We weren’t pissed enough to take it neat. Not yet. We were after a vessel. 

After a bit of a scout around our very limited surroundings, and a brief but considerate glance at the ashtray, the cracked sugar bowl, and the dusty ceramic vase by the sink, we were ready to concede, when our eyes settled on the empty Pot Noodles. 

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Pet

She’d insisted her father meet her outside in the car park, because he’d make a big deal of it, and she didn’t want the others to see. She knew, before it happened, how it would go.

He’d be stood up. He’d have arrived too early. He’d be waiting, in the same make of tan suede loafers he’d worn every weekend since she could remember, arms outstretched, pinning a wobbling smile to his face. He’d sob into her hair. He’d take big, heaving breaths of relief and there would be surging emotion that he himself probably wouldn’t understand. His cheeks would be wet and, because it was a Sunday, he wouldn’t have shaved, so his beard would scrape against her face. She dreaded the performance of it, and felt ashamed to dread such love.

As it turned out, because she was still a hair’s breadth off eighteen, they wouldn’t release her without the presence of a nominated guardian, so he met her in the reception. He needed to sign for her, like a package – a fragile one he’d strap into the front seat of the Volvo, and hold fast as he turned sharp corners.

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The Fall

The sun shone, though the day was far from warm. As she’d sat, waiting for him, the first few flakes of snow had fallen. It had seemed strange to see it happen, in the sunlight, and they had come down so slowly that, at first, she hadn’t been sure it was snow at all, so fragile was the offering that it looked to her more like debris. Ash. Like the aftermath of some great fire.

Sorry I’m late. The fucking dog’s been driving me mental. She’s in heat.

He’d been scowling into the cold air, as she’d watched him round the corner past the chemist, and the lines on his forehead had not yet settled back into his face. She thought he looked tired and irritable, and the possibility of being punished by one of his foul moods had spurred in her a desire to keep the walk brief, or to avoid it altogether. Disappointment hit her in the stomach, and she began thinking of an out. Fake a phone call. Feign a limp. But it wasn’t long before he was smirking at her, dancing on the spot to keep warm, and she found herself smirking back. Once again, the open morning seemed to roll out before them, like a bolt of gold fabric. 

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John

There was something queer about his mouth, too. Not to say that I didn’t like it, but then I always liked a few flaws in a fella. I think I got it from my old mum – she was always after a bastard so I grew up around them, and look what that lead to. Attracted to what I was repelled by. I don’t think that makes sense, does it, but it makes the job easier. I once tricked a fella from Lincoln with warts on his hands. He called it a condition; I called us a cab. Is this being recorded?

Didn’t one of you say I could have a Coke? No, no one brought me one. Hang on, let me get my lighter out. Now, where was I? Yeah, so there was that thing about his mouth, the way he had this habit, yeah, of snaking his tongue out – like this – when he wasn’t talking, not thinking like. Couldn’t stop looking. And he was older. White male and fifty, did you say? 5 foot 8? Sounds about right. Quite a bit older, then, if I’m honest. Didn’t mind. Daddy issues they call that, don’t they? I bet you lot do. Well, answer me this then. How can I have daddy issues if I ain’t got a daddy? I don’t blame you for thinking it. See it all the time, not just with people in my line of work, I bet. Shit goes on at home, and next thing you know you’re picking up some lass for trying to shackle a midlife crisis with a bad dye job and a Jag – trainers too young for them, and all that. You can tell a lot about a person from their shoes. They say that too, don’t they? Do you like mine? Heel’s coming off this one a bit. Is that Coke still coming?

Not that I was trying to shackle anyone anyway. That’s not how it works in my line. This isn’t the movies. He wasn’t bad to look at, though. He wasn’t the sort you’d take pity on at all, not like some of the others, I can tell you. A fella who thinks he’s ugly and is right (they’re the best for it, I find) is a far cry from one who doesn’t. It’s like they aren’t trying to trick you into thinking you might like it. Fucking Richard Gere. God, they’re the worst. Nah, he wasn’t one of them. He knew what he was about. It’s partly why I remember him. Why does any of this matter? I’ve not seen him since, and that was months back. 

Yes please, 2 sugars. No, I still want the Coke, and all, thank you. He’s nice. He asks polite. Not like the rest of you lot. Hey, did I tell you once I got my head slammed over a coffee table by one of you, just because I happened to be working a party at a house in… Yeah, that’s the one. Drug dealer, the news said. Well, how was I to know? 

Anyway, this fella. How comes I remember him? He wasn’t like the others. Usually a smirk and a shandy is all it takes before they’re putty in your hands, grateful for ‘owt, but this one took some doing. I remember he was a little rbloke with little hands too, but broad like a brickie’s, and a neat dresser. I had a banging little number on that night myself. I did. Not too much because you don’t want to make it obvious, do you; got to make them think they’ve pulled you, even when they know they haven’t. I’d winked at him across the bar, and he smiled but then turned back to his drink. It took the wind out of me! I tried again, moving closer, and pulled the forgot my purse one on him, and I could tell he saw straight through it, but he bought my drink anyway. Bacardi Coke, double – ‘cause why not? 

His voice was funny too. Slow talker. Kept each word in his mouth a bit too long, like he was eating a sweet, but it wasn’t daft. I asked him what he did for a living – they always like that, because they always have an answer for it, even if it ain’t true. It’s like they’re grateful for the talking point. I can’t remember what he said he did in the day, but reckoned himself a bit of a writer by night. Started on about the stories he had to tell. Can you imagine it? There’s me, eyeing up the nearest toilet to save a trip back to the Travelodge, and he’s on to me about writers. He said it’s all the little things. The little things is poetry. Think he lost me, to be honest. Then he asked me the same question back, but I said I was just interested in getting to know him a little better, and would he like to nick off somewhere for a bit, to read me some of his work. I called him Mr Shakespeare then, and he laughed. 

I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. He knew. He must have done, they all do. Few drinks later and there we were, back at the room. We chatted at first. He tried to play some music on his phone but I wanted to get down to it and he didn’t stop me. I’ll spare you the details. Is that other one coming back in? He looks like a right go-er.

Yeah, we did. Can I leave yet? I’ve said everything I know and I’m expected back out on the strip tonight. Oh, I don’t know. Nothing too much, just let me jabber on. You know something. I don’t think too much when it’s happening. I zone out. I don’t mean I’m all silent – I mean, we’ve all got our go-to phrases. Yeah. Like that. Do it. Some like you to scream the place down. Others want you to shut your mouth. You can usually guess it right by looking, if you care, but not that time. I couldn’t figure him. Forgot myself. Don’t get me wrong, the earth didn’t move, but something about it caught me off guard. 

Anyway, to answer your question, I know he was there all night because so was I. I knew I shouldn’t have, because I’d not half get a thrashing the next day. I left as soon as it was light enough for me to see where I’d chucked my clothes. Took the money straight out of his wallet, while he was still asleep. Part of me thinking he hadn’t quite clocked the situation, and something about that I liked.

It’s funny what you remember when you really think about it. It was a strange old night. He just smiled and listened. Asked me if Candy was my real name. I don’t know why, because I usually wouldn’t, but I just told him. Expect you can see I’m a talker. Then, get this, right. He turned to me and said that my name means gift, and I laughed. Said he’d seen it on a bookmark one time – the kind with the different names on. I mean, you’d have laughed too. All the little things is poetry, he said. 

Homecoming

Welcome to the city of soft-focus. Blink once and miss nothing. The brick-and-slate vista forms a dingy skirting board below the rising fog. Can you taste it yet? Wait for it, it’s coming – and once the acrid twang of fag ash and river sludge begins to probe the meaty paunches of your mouth, you’ll know you’re here. I watch it smudge past me, from outside the taxi window. I wait for the sign, as if I need reminding. As if this place needs announcing. I can be nowhere else.

The taxi man is chewing a biro. He is an old hand, but he’s not actually as old as all that. Perhaps he’s fifty – fifty-five tops. Some of his back teeth are missing, and his fox-like grin pulls far towards his ears. He begins his patter. He asks me if I’m here for the holidays, his head cocked up towards the mirror. I meet him. I start to explain that I don’t live here anymore: that I’m here to see my brother. Asks me if I’m at yooni, if I like what I’m studying, and if I miss home. I say aye so many times it starts to sound like eye, and I wonder if I’m having a stroke. I ask him if he lives local. Oh yes, he nods. All me life.

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