She’d been lying somewhere that seemed a bit like nowhere since the night before. There was a bottle clasped in her hand. Her fingers curled around it loosely while it tipped at an angle that saw a diagonal of liquid ending a few millimetres below the neck’s rim. She was as still as the street around her.
The boy watching her from across the road alternated between fear and hopelessness. At first he’d thought he was looking at rubbish or maybe one of those bags left for charity shops that people ripped open out of curiosity before leaving the discarded clothes strewn over the street. Then, when he’d realised it was definitely body shaped, he’d assumed it was some old homeless dude. When his wandering had taken him to the window again and the sky had lightened enough to make out bare legs, he’d realised it was a woman. A girl maybe. A girl lying on the wrong side of the railings with unstructured pavement beneath her and a play park behind her head. He’d spent a lot of time at the window.
No one should be up at this time. He shouldn’t be up, but he’s forgotten how to sleep. He turned away from the window and stumbled across the room for his cigarettes, his bare feet encountering clothes, papers and an unpleasant sensation that turned out to be the remains from another sludgy microwave meal. He’d filled all the empty spaces left behind with mess: the flat looked more crowded than ever. He’d left the packet of fags next to his bed. He lit one staring at the wall and smoked it even though his mouth was too dry for it to be enjoyable.
She could be fucking dead.
If she was dead then he surely didn’t have to do anything.
He wobbled back through to the living room and his window. Still there. Still the same. She was spread out untidily, as though someone had placed her in the recovery position but gravity had rolled her so that her back lay flat on the ground while her legs stayed pushed to the side. He was too far away to tell whether her chest was moving. It was summer, but nights were never that warm, she’d be freezing. Hers could be the first dead body he’d ever seen.
The filter burnt his fingers. ‘Fuck.’ He dropped the butt in a coffee mug. She still hadn’t moved.
He was clad only in the same pair of boxers and T-shirt he’d been wearing for the last fifty-two hours. His thighs were goose-pimpled by the draught from the window frame. He’d always wondered what it would be like to touch a dead body. How resistant would the flesh under her skin be?
He pulled himself away from the scene. Now it was darker in the flat than it was outside despite the television that continued to play with no sound. There was a pair of his jeans bunched over the back of a chair. ‘Fuck,’ he said as he picked them up and shook them. A receipt and several small coins fell onto his shins. He struggled into them and then wriggled his bare feet into a pair of clammy trainers. ‘Fuck.’ His coat was on the floor beside the door, the keys still in the pocket. Out in the stairwell it felt like a different kind of time, as though he’d stepped back to when he’d been able to sleep. He didn’t want to open the front door.
She was still there. He felt strangely guilty as he crossed the road— automatically checking for cars even though nothing and no one had passed through the street in hours. He kept his gaze on the pavement as he approached, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to carry on walking if he knew for definite. He passed over clumps of cotton that had congregated in dips in the asphalt, a shard of red plastic that could have once been part of some kind of toy, a few sweet wrappers. A deep breath caught halfway down his lungs and he forced himself to look at her.
The colours that made her up were all wrong, the position of her limbs too. He wanted to retch. But a quiver of her lapels reined in his fears—was she? He forced himself to lean a little closer, careful to inhale through his mouth.
She was breathing.
He righted himself, the muscles in his neck melting. Her face was slack but not innocent. A few premature lines roughened up her forehead—leaving small, pale creases in her skin—and there was glass in her hair, safely snarled into a tangle for now, but far too close to her temple and the vulnerable bone of her cheek.
He leaned over as he said, ‘Hey.’ He felt as though he hadn’t spoken in months. ‘Hey,’ he said again. His hood fell limply onto his neck, making him jump. His hair prickled, he was conscious that people could be looking at him from windows very like his own.
‘Are you alright?’ He moved a hand towards her but recoiled quickly when her eyelids shifted. A noise like something snapping issued from her throat and his heart hummed in a combination of relief and shock.
‘Are you… Can I…?’
The girl’s whole body shuddered, like a landscape about to terraform. He could smell her alcohol-infused sweat as she shifted, but despite the wreckage of disguise she wore, he could appreciate something attractive about her sprawled limbs. Something about the way the gravel had imprinted purple gems on her legs.
She lifted her knees, dragging the heels of her boots along the gravel.
‘What the…?’ Her voice was an indignant protest.
‘I, eh, hi.’
‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’
‘Er, no one, I mean, I live in that flat over there.’ He gestured with a hand that lost purpose halfway through its arc.
‘Oh.’ She pushed her elbows into the ground, the bottle of beer still instinctively grasped and held upright, her head flopped forward. ‘I didn’t… sorry.’
‘No, well, I just thought I should see if you were, you know, alright.’ He shrugged and the sleeves of his coat slithered over his bare forearms, caressing the raised hairs. ‘But maybe I shouldn’t have.’
‘No, no, sorry, fuck, this is so embarrassing.’
‘Och.’ He patted his pockets, knowing they were empty and wishing that he hadn’t left his smokes on the windowsill. She noticed the large damp, beery patch on her sleeve and the bottle in her hand. She carefully set it on the uneven surface beside her.
‘Can I, like, call anyone for you?’ he asked.
‘As if.’ Her laugh was dry and uncomfortable.
She was shivering profusely and he wondered whether she’d only just begun or whether he could only see now because he was standing so close.
‘You’re freezing,’ he said.
‘You’re freezing. Shivering and everything.’
‘Oh, I’m Okay.’
‘But you can’t stay here.’
‘I know that,’ she spat.
For an instant he was surprised by her anger but the feeling quickly receded, leaving him emptier than before. He told himself to walk away but instead he watched her try to stand up, get halfway there then tip over perilously. He caught her arm, pinching her skin too tightly. As soon as she seemed balanced again he let go. She forced stiff fingers into the pocket of her skirt and manouvered out a phone.
‘Oh for Christ’s sake, fucking battery.’ She looked up and down the road.
‘Do you know what time it is?’
‘Erm, I think it’s around half five now.’
‘Not much chance of a taxi then.’
He shook his head.
‘Can I call you one?’
‘Could you?’ Her teeth were millimetres from chattering off each other. He wanted her to wipe some of the debris from her face. It might be easier for him to look at her then. She raised her eyebrows and her expression said, Well?
‘Right. But I’ll have to do it in the flat, I don’t have my mobile on me.’
‘Oh right, Okay.’
‘Look, do you want to come and wait inside? You’re cold.’
She brushed a few chunks of gravel from her calves. He could see her thinking that she shouldn’t, but after a few seconds she raised her head and nodded.
‘Okay.’ He started walking and she followed a step and a half behind. His keys were stuck in the ripped inside of his pocket and he had to tug and fight to free them. He wondered if she could see his blush in the dim stairwell as he pushed his door open and walked over the carpet of envelopes.
‘Don’t worry, none of them are for me,’ he said over his shoulder.
In his absence the programme that had been playing had finished. Now a dumb young woman, in the kind of outfit people enjoyed disapproving of, gestured for him to pick up the phone. He felt like nodding at her, and wondered if it would be too obvious to switch the TV off. It stayed on.
‘Right, phone, sit down.’
She arranged herself on top of several old magazines and a towel after making only the slightest effort to shift them from her way. He burrowed around on the floor until he found the phone. He paused a moment, finger hovering as he thought he couldn’t remember a taxi number but muscle memory kicked in. It took him several seconds longer to realise he couldn’t hear a dial tone.
‘The bill, I must’ve forgotten to pay the bill.’ He watched the expression on her face try to change and then stay in a rough approximation of the way it was before. ‘Shit, I’m sorry, I don’t even have any money in my mobile. I just…’ He slammed the receiver down in embarrassment. Instead of replying she drew her arms and legs in a little closer and, despite the state she was in, began to look apprehensive for the first time.
‘I’m such an idiot,’ he said.
‘No, no, thanks, you’re just trying to… thanks for trying to help and that.’
‘Yeah, fucksake, you’re still shivering. Look, I’ll make you a hot drink or something.’
‘Don’t worry about it, I’m alright. Really, I’ll be fine.’
‘Come on, at least let me make you a tea or something, I’ve no milk or sugar or anything but…’ He hadn’t wanted anyone in his space for so long, but now that she was here it seemed wrong to let her go without offering something. It changed the air somehow—having someone there. She wasn’t speaking but she wasn’t silent either: her breath filled the room.
It seemed, at first, as though she were about to stand and politely reject his offer more firmly but instead she said that tea would be grand. His walk to the kitchen felt tinged with success. He left her sitting with her quivering hands on her knees. He wanted to stop and ask her what she’d been doing, and how it had gone so wrong but he didn’t know how.
By the time he returned clutching two mugs of murky tea he found her asleep again. At first he was worried and put the mugs down so quickly that liquid slopped over the sides. He waved a paranoid hand before her face and flicker-smiled when her stale breath tickled his palm.
He slid his washing onto the floor so he could sit in the armchair opposite her. He would wait.
At first he tried to look away, worried that her eyes would snap open and fill with fear and discomfort as they locked on his. But soon he couldn’t help himself: she was so different. And the rise and fall of her chest became hypnotic—it seemed ridiculous that he hadn’t been able to see it before. He sat and watched, and as he did a wonderful heaviness came over him, every breath—every movement he knew he could make but didn’t—was delicious. He sat, and he watched her, and then he slept.
He only woke when the sun hit his face directly, which meant it was far into the afternoon at least. His head hurt but not the same way it had before. It took him a few minutes, although it felt longer in his sleep-blurred mind, to remember the girl. The sofa was empty. He stood up too quickly and swayed but the silence told him she wasn’t in the flat. He took a swallow of the cold tea and looked around for some kind of note, a sign that she’d been there. There was nothing.
He needed a smoke. He took the packet from the windowsill, squinting in the light. Children played and fought in the play park, cars drove past, teenagers surely skiving school walked down the street and a lonely bottle of beer sat near the railings, still upright, still holding the dregs of the night before.