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Being almost entirely deaf in his left ear, William was used to living in his head. His parents liked to tell people it hadn’t always been this way, but from his point of view it might as well have been. A particularly fierce case of mumps at eleven meant that he spent most of his teenage years in doctors’ offices; cold metal and hot lights thrust down his ears, his mother weeping quietly in a corner. One doctor in particular – of whom he could picture nothing more than the eyebrows, so thickly knitted they seemed to sway like ears of corn in a summer field – tried to compensate for this auricular unpleasantness with fat aniseed gobstoppers. Cloying sweets to swallow a bitter pill.
Actually, William found he could live with this lopsided listening of the world. He kept himself pretty much to himself. He was happy to talk to people one on one, if he could cheat the good ear forward and the bad one back. Groups were harder; crowds near impossible. He got flustered sometimes with questions. Worrying that he wouldn’t catch the whole of their complexity, he developed a habit of answering quickly, in such a way as to put down further conversation. This didn’t lead to a huge social circle. But if the hours sometimes crawled by in slow minutes of wide silence, he rarely caught sight of anyone whose time looked as if it were passing faster just because they were in surround sound.
That the other senses would be sharper now was the first thing his father told him, peering up over half-moon glasses from the Family Health Dictionary. Even then, with the news still new and his head buzzing, William had suspected this was fiction. He remembered sitting on the scratchy horsehair sofa, poking out his tongue like he’d learnt snakes did at school, waiting for something to happen. His mother, bustling in from the kitchen, shouted at him to JUST PLEASE STOP IT, then locked herself in the bathroom. He remembered eating ham sandwiches with his father, an uncomfortable silence hovering over his mother’s empty seat. He remembered trying to savour the sink of his teeth into the spongy bread, the lumps of unspread butter, the unwelcome grittiness of tomato seeds. He remembered her red-eyed return to the table, and having ice cream for dessert.
His experiments lasted just those first few days, when it still felt as if his head was submerged under water from which the rest of him was free. Now William thought it selective at best, this old adage about the senses. He smiled blandly when people told him earnestly that this was the case. He could feel the metro rumble underneath his apartment, but didn’t otherwise seem endowed with supersensory perception. He liked spicy food, but didn’t see chillies sitting any differently on his tongue. He liked the smell of a good rainstorm and the vibrations in his coccyx that came with loud music. He remembered first smelling her perfume, and knew immediately that he liked that.
She had stood in the entryway to his building in a halo of red hair made airborne by summer heat. There was something metallic in this mass of auburn, a shimmer in the shake of her head as she laughed and held out one hand while the other scooped the weight of damp curls up off her neck. He noticed the sheen of sweat on her pale skin as his hand took hers and shook it, shaking.
Her name was Jenny and she had a huge number of bags which he helped carry up eight flights of stairs to the apartment above his. She talked all the way, but with the thump of his blood and the stamp of their feet on wooden boards, her voice was little more than distant birdsong.
Outside her door she dug deep in her pockets. She rolled up her sleeves and as the key caught in the lock he caught the faintest waft of perfume. He watched the rise and fall of her ribs beneath her shirt. She looked over her shoulder at him expectantly, all smiles. He felt the colour rise in his cheeks.
“Sorry, I’m deaf.”
The smile shattered like the breaking of a plate.
“Only the left one,” he half-laughed, awkward, gesturing wildly at the side of his head.
She left her keys and leant in until he could see the hallway, the light fixture, his minute self in the wet of her retina. When she spoke her lips moved slowly, deliberately, until he couldn’t see them anymore, could only feel them pressing into his cheek.
“I’ll talk to this ear then.”
Beyond the one or two seconds in which William could neither think nor breathe nor move nor speak, he became aware of a figure moving in the now-open doorway behind her. A man – tall, mostly shoulders and beard – muttered something, looked straight through him, took some of the bags in. Jenny smiled, and the door banged shut behind her.
William had never paid any attention to his neighbours before, but found himself now trailing up the staircases, tasting the still air for her. He stood motionless in his tiny kitchen, straining the one good ear to catch the murmurings above him. The high days of summer began to ebb and he lay on his bed staring at the ceiling’s bare bulb, holding his breath at the long cord’s every waver. When it started really swinging, he would slam his fist into the switch and plunge the room into darkness.
One damp Saturday he found himself again on his bed, watching autumn rain spatter against the floor. He had twelve inches of balcony outside his window – mostly rust and cigarette butts, but the landlord was proud of it – and the rain that had pooled there dripped solemnly onto the floorboards. His yellowed paperback had fallen out of his hand, which was lucky because, if it had not, he might not have noticed the orange fabric flap in the sky and fall onto his balustrades. He got up and stepping bare feet onto wet tiles craned his head up into the rain. His eyes met hers, peering down amidst a pile of sodden laundry.
She shouted, but the wind caught his head at the wrong moment and all he heard was roar.
“What?” he shouted back.
She laughed and shook her head and, sending socks and tshirts flying, pointed down in the direction of his doorway. She disappeared, and he ran the tangerine fabric of her scarf through his hands.
Jenny stepped into his apartment with a smattering of raindrops, a wide smile, and a bruise on her cheek. Set amongst her freckles it looked, to William, like a cloudy purple constellation.
“He’s gone,” she said, by way of explanation.
He didn’t know what to say. Instead, he ran his fingers lightly along the contour of her cheekbone. He used the cleanest corner of the sodden scarf to wipe the rain from her face. Eventually he kissed her and, with one hand pressed against the back of her ribs, he felt he could hear her heart pounding as well as his.
He made tea, and they sat either side of the rickety table watching emerald leaves and dark mint teabags swirl in the hot water. They talked, softly at first, their voices rising to meet the clamour of rain against the windowpanes. They talked of books (she liked his bookshelves), and art (he admired the tattoo that corkscrewed up her arm). She’d designed it. She wanted to be an artist, someday. Her fingertips traced patterns over piles of scribbled paper and he admitted that he wanted to be a writer, someday, too.
William lost himself in cobalt eyes as afternoon dipped into inky night. Outside, rain fell heavily from an indigo sky. At the first flash of lightning he felt her jump out of her seat. They rose, and from the window watched white light rip across the sky. He felt the thunder in his sternum.
The storm stayed for days and so did she. They padded barefoot between kitchen and bedroom and she blew kisses in both his ears. She seemed astonished by how loud he was in bed – laughing hysterically at the thumps on wall and floor from angry neighbours. William, euphoric, shouted back “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” and that made her laugh even more. He watched the bruises fade from blue to green and thought each waking minute that his chest would burst.
But, eventually, the rain subsided and even he could hear that she was quieter. She looked at her phone a lot, and, if not her phone, her fingers. Lying in bed, he noticed that the lightbulb was swaying gently, and he noticed that she noticed too.
He liked long showers and, emerging from the bathroom one morning with a towel in his hand, saw that she was leaving. They looked at each other. His hair sent rivers running down his back.
“William.” Her voice was tiny. “I can’t stay.”
He took the towel and began drying the hair on the good side of his head.
“I can’t hear you.”