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“What time is it?” one voice asks into the phone.
“Did I wake you?” another answers. “It’s about half three.”
“Has someone died?”
“Not yet. It’s far more serious than that.”
“Well in that case I’d better sit up.” The sound of pillows being punched into place filled the dark room. “Where are you?” he whispered.
“I can hear your feet.” And he could, footsteps on solid ground. “Are you drunk?”
“I drink, therefore I am.”
“I’m sleepy, that’s a little like being drunk.”
“I’ve got up my drunken shield, concocted of the majority of one bottle of white wine, at least one shot of Sambuca and several gin cocktails. Now I can say anything, ask you anything and not remember it in the morning.”
“You got something to say to me?”
“Give me one sec then.”
He swung his feet out of the bed and took large, slow steps towards the door, taking a glance back into the room as he closed it conspiratorially behind him.
He sat up in the single bed of the spare room, bringing the sheets around him so he looked like a miniature Buddha in the dark. He listened mostly, speaking only occasionally to let them know he was still conscious, still listening. Saying only okay, yes, I understand, it’s fine, really, it’s fine.
“And that’s about it.” They finished.
“Okay,” whilst listening he had moved to the edge of the bed and rolled up the blind of the bedroom window. Outside, black plastic bin lids radiated with the amber glow of a single streetlight. A back yard door swung on its hinges. Something moved in the darkness. Or perhaps he had just imagined it.
“I’m about to go into the tube, can I call you right back.” This wasn’t exactly a question that needed answering.
He went to the bathroom. The light was harsh and abrupt. After pissing he splashed cold water onto his face, as if he was in a film. His face was lined and mottled from sleep. Idly he put his hand down into his boxers.
The phone vibrated on the cistern. He moved quickly back to the spare room, sat down and answered.
“The tube was horrible.”
“Are you walking home alone?”
“I’ve got you for protection.”
“I’ll keep on the line.”
“You haven’t changed your mind during the ad break have you?”
“No,” he laughed through his nose. “I haven’t changed my mind.”
“What’s home like now? Does everyone still go to The Neighbourhood?”
He laughed. “No, Neighbourhood’s gone. There’s not many people around anymore really.”
“We’ve all drifted away. I think we’re in need of a good funeral or wedding, something to bring us all back home.”
“There’s always Christmas.”
He stretched his arms out in the dark, arching his back uncomfortably, keeping the phone to his ear.
“I drove past our old school last week,” he said after a pause. “They’ve rebuilt it, into the shape of a cross.”
“That old place.”
“Other stuff’s being done up. We got a couple Costa’s now, a market, all that kind of thing.”
“Except people, we’re still just in one place.”
The line went quiet, except for footsteps.
“It’s better to have said it, I couldn’t have not said anything.”
“I know,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m back now,’ the voice said abruptly after a protracted silence. “Ever the gentlemen, walking me back to my door.”
“Here’s where I kiss you on the cheek.”
“You want to come in for a coffee? That’s what they say isn’t it, in films?”
“I believe they do.”
“Except this isn’t a film. Imagine how sad I’m going to be when I realise I’m old and my life wasn’t actually a film and I’m nearly dead.”
He slept in late the next morning and was woken by the hairdryer. He sat up and rested his weight on the ball of one shoulder. The dryer clicked off.
“You were up late.”
“Yeah,” he lowered his chin towards his chest. “I got a call.”
“Strange hour.” She looked and didn’t look at him in the reflection of the mirror whilst combing her hair.
“Was an old school friend,” he stared deliberately at her, waiting for her eyes to meet his.
“Oh yeah,” she said, looking at her own reflection. “Anyone I know?”
“No, I don’t think you ever met.”
She dressed in silence. Before leaving the room she turned to him, “don’t forget to make the bed,” she said.
“The spare too,” her voice came from out of the room, already moving past the threshold and away from him.