This short story was awarded second place in the Short Fiction section of our 2014 Inaugural Writing Competition.
* * *
‘So…’ you say.
‘Pathetic, isn’t it?’ I mumble, hunched over, staring into the bottom of my tumbler. Maybe if I stay in this position long enough the rest of the world will disappear. Except for you. You can stay. There comes a point when you’ve known someone for so long that the regular rules don’t apply to them.
‘It happens,’ you reply. What are you replying to? I can’t remember.
‘What did I say?’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ You shrug. If I was watching you properly I would be able to determine if you were shrugging because it really doesn’t matter, or because you were trying to make it seem like it didn’t, so that I wouldn’t have to think about it…
‘It didn’t work.’
‘You can’t fool me. You have very eloquent shoulders when I can see them.’
I can hear you staring at me. Sorry… see you staring at me… But that’s not true either. I’m not looking at you, because I’m still trying to get to the hope at the bottom of this whisky… But I still know that you’re staring, and that’s the point.
‘You need to go to bed.’ Probably.
‘Don’t want to.’ I don’t need to tell you that it’s because a new room will just remind me of her absence.
‘Still. Better to get some sleep. Come on, I’ll help you.’
‘I’m not drunk,’ I slur.
You shrug that shrug which means you disagree but can’t be bothered to fight about it.
‘You staying the night?’
‘Top and tailing, obviously… I’m not that messed up by the whole thing.’ That sounds a bit like me. Like the normal me. But the normal me isn’t ready to come back yet.
‘’Course,’ you say again. You understand. ‘I have to leave early for work, though.’
‘Can I come?’ You’re only a rugby coach. The office has given me compassionate leave. No one will mind. No one will care.
‘Are you likely to be up at six?’
‘If you get up I’ll wake up. I just don’t want to be…’ I don’t want to say alone. Because then it’ll be out in the open and it’ll be true and I can’t let it be just yet. Better to keep it in.
‘We’ll have to take the car.’
‘It’s alright… You know, that’s the weird thing about it. The one thing that hasn’t changed since the…’ I don’t have to say “crash”. ‘I think I can still drive.’
‘Not after that whisky,’ you say, with that quick grin. The one that appears and disappears in a flash but which always makes me feel like everything’s sort of alright, even when it isn’t. Even when I’ve lost her and nothing will ever be alright again. ‘Don’t even know why I let you have it. Not on your meds, with your lung the way it is…’
‘I’ve got a spare,’ I say, my smile cut short by the memories of twisted metal and broken glass and bolts of pain piercing my chest. They crash down on my brain and fill up my consciousness and try to drown me.
Your arm is around me. ‘I know. I know. I’ve got you.’
Am I crying again? It’s hard to tell. It gets to a point where your face can’t get any wetter. Maybe I’ve been crying the whole time. Doesn’t matter. It’s all numb from the whisky anyway.
‘I’ve got you, mate.’
‘Sorry.’ I choke, collapsing at the base of the staircase.
You pull me up again, suddenly, but not roughly, and throw my arm around your shoulders so that you can carry me up the stairs. ‘If you apologize again,’ you grunt, ‘I swear I’ll throw you down the fucking stairs and be done with it.’
‘I wish you would.’
‘Shut up.’ It’s how we end a lot of our conversations nowadays. You’re not being unkind. You just know that if I keep talking it will all be out there and I won’t be able to take it back. If I say that I want to be thrown down the stairs, or that I don’t want to live anymore, I might end up believing it, trying to do something about it.
I trudge to the bedroom. I start to clear things off the bed, but I’m so exhausted that I can barely tell what belongs on it, what’s a pillow and what’s a shirt, what’s a book, what’s my pyjamas, what’s mine, what was hers.
‘Sorry… haven’t really left the living room since I came back from the hospital. Slept here the first night, then…’ It comes out so coherent that your head snaps up.
‘What did I tell you about apologizing?’
‘Sorr-’ You grab my shoulders and shake me, hard. It hurts, but I know you’re capable of worse. I know because I’ve seen it. You lean close, yanking what little hair I have left on the back of my head so I look you in the eye.
‘Never. Apologize. ‘Right?’ You let me go.
‘Right. Remember that time at the pub?’ I ask. You know the time I mean. That was the time when I saw that you were capable of worse. One against three, and you came out without a scratch. My best mate.
‘Only ‘cause I can’t forget it. Don’t bring it up. Unless you think it’ll help,’ you add as an afterthought, remembering that I’m meant to be the wreck here.
‘No. It won’t.’
‘Thought not. Heads or tails?’ While I’ve been standing, swaying on unsteady legs, you’ve been making the bed. I’m sorry that I didn’t notice, but you probably already know I’m sorry.
‘Tails. And let me sleep on the right.’ Wrong end, wrong side. I’ll be disorientated, but at least that way I’ll remember everything as soon as I wake up. The first night back from the hospital I slept on my usual side, and when I woke up it took me a full five minutes to remember why she wasn’t lying there next to me. I decamped to the living room after that. I’d rather have the shock straight away than the torture of five half-asleep minutes when I can almost touch a different reality.
‘Right,’ you say.
You don’t have your pyjamas with you. I’d lend you a pair but they’d be too small, and we both know it. You take off your jeans and shirt and I watch the muscles in your eloquent shoulders bunch under the skin. I dimly remember games lessons at school, when we had to get changed next to each other. I remember watching you, awash in feelings of adolescent inadequacy. I never quite grew out of it until I met her. And now I’ve lost her, and you’re back looking out for me as if we were back at school with bullies lurking around every corner.
‘Funny, if you think about it… that she went for me, out of the two of us.’
You shrug and get under the covers. Now, that shrug means that you can’t be bothered to think about it. ‘Someone was bound to eventually, I s’pose.’
I turn off the light and take the pillow to the other end of the bed, lying on top of the covers, welcoming the cool air even as it makes my head throb. ‘Did you think about asking her out, when we first saw her?’ Same pub, different night.
‘Only for the five seconds before I figured out that she was looking at you. After that I never looked at her.’
‘You’re using your lying voice.’
‘Shut up. We both need to sleep.’ You roll onto your side. The bed frame squeaks.
‘Either way, thanks.’ Whether you fancied her or not, thanks for giving me the chance, for letting me win the girl.
‘I mean it.’
‘Doesn’t mean you have to say it.’ A pause. ‘It doesn’t change anything.’
‘I know you know.’
‘If you know then why did you say it?’
‘For the same reason you said thanks.’
‘I don’t know why I said thanks.’
‘Neither do I. But knowing you it’s probably the same reason.’ There comes a point when you’ve known someone for so long that your conversations don’t have to make sense.
‘Have you set the alarm?’
‘It’s on my phone. You don’t have to come, you know.
‘No, I do. I need to get out of the house.’
‘You didn’t come to the funeral.’ I pause. You’ve stopped breathing. ‘I know your lying voice when I hear it.’
‘Shut up and go to sleep. You’ll wear yourself out.’
‘I’m already worn out.’
‘I know.’ You pat my ankle, vaguely. ‘I know.’
‘I know you know.’ I lie there for a while but I can’t sleep. ‘If she’d gone for you…’
‘Don’t you dare.’
‘That night. If it’d been your date night and not ours…’
‘Don’t you fucking dare, Mike.’
‘She would still be alive.’
Silence, except for the shattering of a sacred, ancient, unwritten rule. You sit up, and in the crack of light from the door I can see your shoulders hunched and shaking, your back turned to me. As if it matters. I’ve known you for decades; do you really think that I can’t tell your expression as well from the back as the front?
‘So now it’s my fault?’
‘No. No, mate. It was always mine. Always. I was driving, remember?’
Soft, snuffling noises.
‘I told you not to apologize.’
‘Not for me. For you. I’m sorry.’ Because you’re grieving too, and I didn’t even notice. I find your shoulder in the darkness.
You shrug me off.
‘Shut up.’ Never waste words on things that don’t need saying. We both settle down again.
‘I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘I know you know.’
‘I know you know I know.’
‘Shut up, you idiot,’ you say, and I do.