It started in Boots. We were in for false tan, or lipstick. Eyeliner maybe. Karen was down on her hunkers looking through face creams on the bottom shelf. I was standing with my hands in my pockets, trying not to let the brightness of white lights get to me. I walked to the end of the aisle, passed an auld doll with a basket full of cotton pads, and stopped at the men‘s section. Electronic razors, beard trimmers, aftershave balm and all the bollocks of the day.

I went to the next aisle, the Durex section. Purple and pink bottles. Tingle. Massage Oil. Enhanced Lubrication. A lesser man would shy away. Not me. I‘d the vibrating ring in my hand trying to work out the point of it. Then the lubrication oil, gel that tastes like blueberries, numbing gel for those who can‘t last the duration of opening credits.

Karen appeared at my shoulder like a bad feeling. ‘What‘re ye doin?‘

‘Just havin a look.‘

She spotted discount nail polish on the opposite shelf. Bold orange, almost luminous. She checked the colour on the miniscule brush, glanced round and took a stealthy whiff.

‘Pregnancy tests,‘ I said, pointing.

‘What do you want with them?‘

I lifted one that told you the result and how many weeks along. ‘Do they work? Like, are they accurate?‘

‘Seriously, how would I know?‘

‘Have you never done one?‘

She gave me a filthy look, set the nail polish back and walked away.

I read the box. There were no instructions, only facts about its accuracy and how easy it was to use. Not just a piss-stick anymore, this was state-of-the-art technology. Innovative, like those at-home STI tests I‘d seen advertised. I held it up to read the small print. A group of teenage girls reeking of tester-bottle perfume spotted me and laughed.

‘It‘s not for me,‘ I said, and they looked at me like I should be taken home.

I met Karen at the till. She was hugging a bundle of tan and hair products to her chest and texting with her one free hand. Her face was taut with impatience, hair tied back in a bun, and the more I stared at her the more determined she seemed to text on her phone. ‘I reckon you should do one,‘ I said. ‘Just for the craic.‘

‘Go away.‘

‘Why not? It would be good to see how it works.‘

‘You piss on it and it tells you if you‘re pregnant. That‘s it.‘

The woman at the till stared, pencilled eyebrows giving her the look of being in a state of perpetual shock.

‘It‘s mad though, isn‘t it? Tells ye how many weeks and all. It would be good to do it for the craic I reckon, wouldn‘t it?‘

She locked her phone screen and dropped it into the depths of her handbag, and the woman took her things and scanned them with a flourish and a beep.

I was working nightshift in the Coca-Cola factory, so we didn‘t get much time together. Going to Boots and knocking about town was the height of it. In Starbucks, we ordered gingerbread lattes because it was Christmas. The place was packed with the hum of conversation and cosiness of heat. Lads and girls with scarves to their knees sat perched over giant mugs blowing into froth.

We got a table upstairs by the windows overlooking Arthur‘s Square, the Spirit of Belfast sculpture that looked more like giant intertwined onion rings than anything else. Groups of groomed nightclub PRs with tight haircuts and handfuls of flyers sat about the base. Teenagers congregated and broke apart, smoked fegs and kissed. Karen had her phone out again, fingers blitzing across the screen. She sipped her drink and continued texting with her free hand, glancing at me then across the room like I should have something better to do than watch her.

‘Do you wash the piss off after you get the result?‘ I said.

She didn‘t take her eyes from her phone.

‘Like, when you do a pregnancy test and it comes out positive, do you wash the piss away?‘

‘You‘re a weirdo.‘

‘Do you ever see in films and TV though? When they see they‘re pregnant they run about wavin it in the air. People grab it to see for themselves, but there‘s piss all over it. Some girl has pissed all over it and every cunt‘s grabbin it.‘

‘Seriously. You need to stop.‘

She went back to her phone all flustered and swiped her thumb down the screen. Onto Facebook now, scrolling through her Newsfeed, staring at selfies of people she doesn‘t even like.

I looked out the window. There was a busker at the top of Anne‘s Street. Ginger hair, brown shoes and a big coat. Beard as patchy as his singing, his eyes closed and rolled back when he went for the high notes. Another Rupert Grint looking cunt singing Ed Sheeran songs. A group of lads stopped in front of him and sang along. One went to grab his empty guitar case, his precious hard earned shrapnel, and jumped back laughing from his angry kick.

‘Imagine you did one and it came out positive,‘ I said.

She couldn‘t even look at me.

She worked in a clothes shop. She got the job through the Steps to Work programme with the Job Centre. They put her there, and for six months she‘d to do full-time hours for an extra fifteen on her dole. Serving customers, arranging clothes on hangers, standing outside changing rooms for hours at a time with no one to talk to but herself. She hated it, dreaded it even when she was taken on and paid full wages.

I spent most nights on the settee. She couldn‘t put up with me coming home at six in the morning and waking her. So I‘d come in quietly, close the door slow, always careful to tiptoe my way down the hall and into the living room. I wouldn‘t turn the TV on, didn‘t even have the balls to flush the toilet if I‘d to piss. She needed her sleep for the clothes shop. She was better with her sleep.

That morning, I came home from work and heard music even before I opened the front door. Stifled voices and laughter. I stepped into the hall and saw the light on below the bedroom door. There was a delighted scream, bed sheets rustling, creaking of bed-frame and floorboards. Karen was naked. Someone was with her and they were laughing at me, rolling about the bed laughing with each other, singing along to songs they didn‘t know the words to and shrieking with glee.

I stood in the hall, the sounds of unhindered voices bashing through me. She was never usually home at this time. She‘d go to house parties or illegal raves, anything to prolong the night. I wouldn‘t usually see her until the next afternoon. I leant against the wall to steady myself, took a breath and tried to swallow, my chest tightening from excitement or fear, I wasn‘t sure, only collapsing.

She opened the door before I could. She was in a dress, her hair curled and eyelashes black with mascara. She jumped back when she saw me, then looked disappointed I wasn‘t somebody else.

‘We went out,‘ she said. ‘Shona needed to get out. She‘s not having a good time of it. She‘s staying with us and needed a girly night so we went out for a girly night.‘

Her friend Shona was spread-eagled on the bed staring up at the ceiling. Her skirt rode up her thighs, big chest lumping out and rolling back to her chin like an extra stomach. ‘I need water,‘ she said. ‘I need water and food. And socks. My feet are freezin. Get me socks.‘

Karen turned to me. ‘Is there something you want?‘

She raised her eyebrows, glazed eyes stubborn with exasperation. She liked to speak properly after a few drinks, liked to fool herself into believing good annunciation was who she was.

Shona sat up and pointed. ‘Look at his high-vis,‘ she said. ‘Ach bless.‘ She went into hysterics and rolled across the bed. ‘You look like a wee workin man. And the boots. Oh Mummy. Are they steel toe-capped? Karen, he‘s actually wearin steel toe-caps.‘

Karen nearly keeled over. She‘d to grab hold of the door handle and cradle her stomach she laughed so hard.

I left them to it and went into the living room. It was open planned, the kitchen a mess of unwashed glasses and food-stained plates, the breakfast bar all burnt-out candles and wet tea towels. There was a blanket and one pillow waiting for me on the settee. I took my boots and jacket off, lay down and curled up into a ball.

I could see myself reflected in the blank TV screen. A dull figure. Orange gauze of streetlight broke between half-open blinds. I tried not to hear what they were saying in the bedroom but their voices carried. Something about a party and dancing with someone. That creepy fella with the tattoo. I closed my eyes to sleep and the music faded. I heard something about the toilets and more cackles of laughter. Someone‘s arse.

I thought of where I‘d go if I walked out. There was something appealing about the idea of a bench, of lying flat and staring at the sky while the deadness of the city ached around me. I thought of all the things that could happen to me, the coldness chewing through toes and fingers, people shouting for taxis home from nightclubs and starting punch-ups outside the twenty-four hour McDonalds. I pictured myself being trailed from my bench and kicked in the face and heard the laughter in the next room.

They whaled into the kitchen at one point, shushing each other and whispering. I kept my eyes closed and held my stillness. But it didn‘t stop them opening and slamming cupboards, rummaging through drawers, ripping open packets of crisps, chewing and smacking and blasting water taps.

‘Ye shouldn‘t be drinkin in your state,‘ Shona said. ‘Twenty-four weeks along. Ye can‘t be steamin at twenty-four weeks.‘

‘Sure if I can‘t do it now, when can I ever?‘

I looked up and they both went into a fit of laughter. Karen had a pillow stuffed up her dress and was cradling it in her arms. ‘Is this what you want?‘ she said. ‘Our wee baby.‘

‘Sorry,‘ Shona said. ‘It‘s mine. We‘ve been havin an affair.‘

‘These things happen …‘

‘The pregnancy test. Show him the pregnancy test.‘

‘Can‘t. There‘s piss all over it.‘

I was out the door before either of them got up. The sun was low in the sky and blinding—like its good night‘s sleep was something to scream about. The pavement white with ice and grit. Black taxis charged round the depot across the street, drivers shouted between windows and heavy doors opened and slammed. A group of lads in tracksuits came out of a shop drinking bottles of energy drink. I could feel the soreness in my feet. I wasn‘t angry. I wasn‘t even fed-up. I was tired and I was walking. The cold air did me a world of good and I felt a wistful despondency at being hard done by. It made me content to be alone, going somewhere and doing something, even if it was just walking.

Girls in body warmers and Ugg boots pushed prams between charity shops. I passed a group of drunks sitting on the pavement with their backs against the wall, bleating like lambs. A woman in white leggings sat between them. She squinted at me, licked her chapped lips and grinned. Tourists with cameras round their necks stared about like they weren‘t sure this was the right place.

Nobody I knew was about, not even Maxi. He loved Castle Street, loved the drunks and the ruffians, the lads knocking out weed and stolen perfume on side streets. Last time I saw him he was marching up and down the pavement with a takeout cup asking people for change. I gave him two quid and he called me a miserable bastard. He wasn‘t even homeless. His head was in the shed but he wasn‘t homeless.

Roma women with Big Issues tried to make a sale. Men in suits strutted between coffee shops and bank buildings, coat-tails whipping out like twenty-first century barons of online banking. I walked in circles and laps, passed McDonalds at the corner of Castle Place three times, the same whiff of deep fat fryers and microwaved processed meat wafting through me again and again. I glanced at the green copper coated domes of the City Hall and passed nightclub PRs like I had somewhere to go.

They were probably awake now. Shona was probably unpacking her clothes while Karen made space for her. New toothbrush in the cup by the sink, pyjamas and knickers folded and stuffed into drawers, her phone taking its place on my bedside table. I dreaded the thought of going back, hoped only that they‘d clean the place, that I could at least fill myself a glass of water without stressing about it tasting of vodka.

I went to Boots on Royal Avenue and stared at pregnancy tests. Women passed me and looked at me like I might steal their handbags. Others went to self-checkouts and scanned items uncertainly. I left and went back again. Employees in white tunics began to recognise me. They patrolled aisles like screws and I left and went to the branch in Castle Court, lifted one of the tests and read the box. I couldn‘t buy it. I got as far as the till, the woman blinking at me, before I dropped it on the floor and ran.

I ended up sitting at the base of the Spirit of Belfast sculpture. The town milled around me. People crossed and re-crossed Arthur‘s Square like bottles on a conveyor belt. There were no buskers and it was too early yet for the usual clusters of teenagers. Some people sat at tables by the windows of Starbucks hunched over coffees, watching. I half expected something to happen, someone to slap me on the back of the head or step on my foot.

I tried to think of how it might work with Shona. I would come in from my night-shift and sleep on the settee. Karen would get up in the morning and go to work and Shona would … what? She was unemployed, signing on, and I felt for her because I knew what it was like. But she was sleeping on my side of the bed. She was drooling on my pillow and showering in my en-suite bathroom. She was eating the crisps I had stashed in the cupboard below the sink and leaving takeout cartons at her arse. I pictured us alone in the apartment while Karen was at work. Shona taking over the settee, flicking through channels on the TV, and me on the floor or at the breakfast bar trying to think of things to say and saying them all wrong. I‘d have to get out. I‘d have to walk about town and see things I see too much of and pretend they don‘t break my heart each time I see them.

Castle Street. McDonalds. The copper green domes of the City Hall.

I couldn‘t face it and yet I had to. I already was. I was sitting in Arthur Square with nowhere to go, and the only thing I could think of doing I couldn‘t bring myself to do. No bother lifting a vibrating ring or lubricant or flavoured gels. I wouldn‘t break a sweat bringing any of them to the counter. But a pregnancy test?

There was something so definitive about a result. An absolute yes or no. I knew which of these categories I fell into but I wanted to see. I didn‘t care how it worked. Like a diabetes test or a thermometer, it just did. The stick reacted to your piss, the display showed you a result, there was nothing else to it, yet there was everything, and I wanted to witness everything. My result. Then I would be something. I would have something to hold up and say this is me, this is what I am.

A baby dropped its dodo on the ground and a man bent down to pick it up.

There are two places in town you‘re likely to find Maxi. Outside Smithfield at the back of Castle Court, or round by St Anne‘s Cathedral with a dip of glue unable to tell his arse from his elbow. So Smithfield it was. He was standing with his back against the wall of the carpet shop. He‘d his hood up. Thirty years old and he‘s walking about town in tracksuit bottoms and his hood up. Pale and skinny as a feg, he‘d the look of someone unused to daylight. ‘What‘s happenin, cunt ye?‘

He spoke with a squeal, forcing words out of himself as if fingers were gently and relentlessly pressing on his throat. And his smile was massive, his eyes wild and glassy. Movements and reactions always exaggerated. When a woman passed in skinny jeans he craned his neck, stared wide-eyed at her arse and threw his hands in the air like he‘d never seen anything like it.

‘This town‘s teemin with it,‘ he said. ‘They‘re everywhere. Big buck me boots and all. I love it. I seriously fuckin love it. Didn‘t dress like that when we were growin up, did they?‘

‘Tracksuits and guddies. Pyjama bottoms on a good day.‘

He agreed and laughed, delighted. He skipped on the spot and rubbed his hands together, veins like pathways on his arms, then leaned back against the wall. ‘What is it you‘re lookin?‘ he said. ‘I know you‘re not here for nothin. You‘re lookin somethin. I can tell by your eyes. What is it? Tell me and I‘ll get ye anything ye want.‘

I don‘t know how I know him. We might have been from the same place or went to the same school, but I can‘t picture or remember him being anything other than how he is now. Not as a boy or a teenager or in a school uniform. He was always Maxi who loved a dip of glue. Maxi with the clammy sore skin, the battered face and skeletal frame too skeletal for the smallest sized clothes. They hung on him like a bad life, hunching him over, bottoms of his tracksuit bottoms dragging across the ground gathering dirt, tearing.

‘I need you to do somethin for me,‘ I told him. ‘I‘ll pay ye.‘

He buried his hands in his pockets and looked up and down the street. ‘Go ahead will,‘ he said. ‘What do ye need? Tell me. Go on. Wait. Hold on.‘

An aul fella came out of the carpet shop and draped a maroon floor mat over the railings beside us. He stepped back to see it better, scratched the back of his head and pulled his trousers up. He saw us and nodded, spat on the ground and went back inside. ‘Go on,‘ Maxi said. ‘What do ye need?‘

‘I need ye to get me somethin in Castle Court.‘

‘Much you payin?‘

‘Plenty.‘

He narrowed his eyes, stepped forward as if to see me better. ‘You up to somethin? You‘re a hairy bear. I know you‘re up to no good. I fuckin love it.‘

‘You‘ll do it then?‘

He threw his head back and howled like a man possessed. ‘Mon the fuck. I‘ll do anything.‘

He skipped on the spot and we crossed the road to Castle Court. People queued at the bank machine and Maxi stayed a step behind, glancing left and right as we went through the shopping centre doors. ‘It‘s not Debenhams, is it?‘ he said. ‘I can‘t go near Debenhams. Got scooped strokin nail polish a few weeks ago. Can‘t go near it.‘

Inside, he glanced up at the ceiling for cameras, then at the passing faces of people like they were undercover, and ducked his head. A baby was crying, its whimpers echoing in the expanse. Footsteps clicked and clacked on the floors. Music blared out of Burton and Miss Selfridge and JD Sports and I saw a woman sit on a bench, take a shoe off and rub her foot. A man was sitting next to her eating cereal straight out of the box and staring round. Every shop seemed to have a sale on, big red posters like stop signs in the din.

We stopped outside Boots. I handed him two score notes and told him what I wanted. ‘Keep the twenty for yourself,‘ I said. ‘And keep the change from that twenty. Just make sure it‘s that exact model, right?‘

He frowned at the cash, looked me dead in the face but didn‘t ask what the test was for.

‘Do you hear me? The one that says how many weeks. Make sure it‘s that one.‘

He looked into Boots, at the women with veneered teeth and blusher-peppered faces, and I could see the hesitance in his eyes. ‘Right,‘ he said, and took a step forward and stopped. He took the two twenty quid notes and held them up to the light, squinting, checking and making sure.

‘I know what you‘re like, ballbag. You‘d stroke the laces from my guddies right and quick.‘

They were still there when I got back to the apartment that afternoon. At the breakfast bar with a half-eaten takeout between them, a bottle of wine and two glasses. They looked at me, then at Maxi like he should have a wash before stepping closer.

‘We‘re having a drink,‘ Karen said. Her face was pale and craggy like scuffed paper. Traces of runny mascara on her cheeks. Shona chewed the skin round the nail of her thumb. She was wearing a pair of Karen‘s pyjama shorts, big legs streaked with false tan.

I sat on the settee and Maxi looked between them, his posture shrinking back, folding into himself. He‘d a bag full of bottles of nail polish he‘d bought with the money I gave him. He held it to his chest and sat on the edge of the settee next to me. He sniffed, and swallowed a lug of phlegm. He put me in mind of a foster child and I wondered if he ever was one.

‘Do you wanna watch TV?‘ I asked him, and he shook his head.

‘I wanna drink, or a toke of somethin.‘

‘We‘ve wine here,‘ Karen said. ‘Mon over and have a glass.‘

He got up and approached them reluctantly, kept his eyes on their faces as a cup was filled and handed to him.

‘Sit down sure,‘ Shona said. ‘What‘s your name? Maxi? Sit you down and talk to us, Maxi.‘

Maxi rubbed his hand on his thigh, clutched his bag of nail polish to him.

‘Who‘s the nail polish for? Can we see them?‘

‘No. They‘re for my girl.‘

‘What‘s her name?‘

He shrugged and raised the cup to his lips, took a large gulp and grimaced. Karen and Shona laughed, asked him did he not like it. ‘I do,‘ he said. ‘I‘d drink anything.‘

They asked him where he was from, how he knew me and if he wanted some chips. ‘They‘ve been there a few hours,‘ said Shona. ‘But sure they‘ll be sweet.‘

Maxi nodded and frowned at the floor, his eyes distrustful. He coughed into his hand and swallowed. Karen struggled to hide her disgust. ‘So what do you do with yourself? Are you working anywhere?‘

I left them to it and went into the bedroom. There was an open suitcase filled with clothes on the bed. The iron had been left on the floor and had burnt the edge of the bed sheet it was leant against. I flicked the switch off, went into the en-suite bathroom, locked the door and sat down.

I could hear them in the living room. They continued speaking like I wasn‘t listening. Karen asked Maxi what he was doing with me. ‘I hope you‘re not getting him into trouble,‘ she said. ‘Are you?‘

I almost heard his shoulders shrug. ‘We had to do somethin.‘

I stared around the bathroom. The lime green floor mat was dishevelled. It matched the lime green tiles and the lime great soap dispenser and the lime green toilet roll holder. The white and lime green shower curtain was half closed and the lime green shower mat had become unstuck from the bathtub. I took the pregnancy test from my back pocket and made sure the door was locked.

Clear Blue. Ninety-seven percent accurate. Longer ergonomic shape makes it easier to handle and more hygienic—less likely to piss on your hand—and you can test up to four days before your period‘s due. Unmistakably clear digital results within three minutes …

Three minutes. Longer time waiting on the result than it takes to piss.

There was a scream in the living room. Something dropped and smashed. Silence, then an eruption of laughter. Maxi was getting more animated. I heard his voice raised and I heard Shona say something about him being far better craic than I was.

I opened the box and took out the test. It looked like an electronic thermometer. Sleek and white with a fat blue tip and little square screen. I held it up to the light and wondered how many people had used it and got the result they didn‘t want. The bad news breaker. An almost immediate, three-minute diagnosis at a tenner a go.

What do they do for three minutes? Where do their minds go? A torturous life-changing wait. Karen wouldn‘t have it. Thirty seconds was about as long as she was willing to wait for anything.

The door knocked and I froze.

‘You in there?‘

It was her. The handle went down and there was a push.

‘What‘re you doing? I need to speak to you.‘

I stuffed the stick in my pocket, dumped the box at the bottom of the lime green bin by the sink and let her in.

‘I was takin a piss,‘ I said. ‘Is that all right?‘

‘I didn‘t hear the toilet flush.‘

She stepped round me and checked the bowl. I reached passed her and flushed it. ‘What‘s the matter?‘

She sighed, put the lid down and sat. She squeezed her hands between her thighs, tensed her shoulders like she was cold and looked up at me. She looked small and stranded, eyes glassy with drink and lack of sleep. She liked a drink, liked partying, but not bringing the party home. Her home was where she came back to, where she‘d wash her makeup off and put her pyjamas on. She liked lying on the settee and watching box-sets all day, eating chocolate and junk food and cradling her hangover to her. That was her favourite part, the binge-eating recovery before going back to work, and I could tell she missed it, that she was afraid of the next day.

‘Shona has nowhere to go,‘ she said. ‘What am I gonna do?‘

Maxi‘s voice was loud now. Something about running away from someone. Peelers probably. Shona was lapping it up, her exaggerated laughter as irritating as her voice. Karen groaned and sighed again. ‘What am I gonna do?‘

I‘d my hand in my pocket and could feel the plastic stick between my fingers. ‘I just can‘t,‘ she said. ‘I‘m dyin a death. This is too much and I dunno how long she’ll be staying. I can‘t …‘

Her words ran into each other and off into nothing, and I knelt down in front of her. Her bare knees were cold. Goose pimples exploded along her thighs. She was shivering and staring into space with gloom.

‘Throw them out and blame it on me.‘

The words tumbled from my mouth before I could stop myself, and she sat up and grinned with relief. She hugged me and I hugged her back with one hand still in my pocket. Then, like she realised what she was doing, she pushed me away, stood up, and checked herself in the mirror with a renewed resolve.

‘You can stay in here if you want, or come out with me. I don‘t care.‘

‘I‘ll stay here sure,‘ I said. ‘Go you on.‘

She was about to retort, but stopped herself and took a breath. Her hands were shaking and for a moment I wanted to grab hold of her fingers, steady her.

I listened to her call me all the names of the day and tell them they had to go. I sat on the toilet and waited. ‘He won‘t have it,‘ she said. ‘He wants you out. There‘s nothing I can do …‘

She whimpered and shrieked and I kept the pregnancy test in my pocket. It poked into my upper thigh like a blunt pencil. Shona tried to reassure her. She understood. She‘d find somewhere else to go. ‘Don‘t worry about me,‘ she said. ‘I‘ll be sweet. Don‘t worry yourself.‘

A door slammed. Maxi walking out probably. I took the test from my pocket again and held it out. Clear Blue as day. Plus for positive, minus for negative. Negative for nothing.

I stood, unbuttoned my jeans and changed my mind, sat down. If I was going to do this I was going to do it right.

I pressed my hand on myself so I‘d piss downwards into the bowl, leant forward and reached round as if to wipe my arse and held the stick under. My hand was trembling, thighs straining mid-squat. I could have fallen forward but I didn‘t. I held.

Shona was on the phone to someone and Karen apologised again and again. ‘It‘s him. It‘s all his fault. I hate him. I wish he‘d go …‘

I stared at the tiled floor. There was a red stain by the radiator that looked like blood. A single blob. I could see the minute dots of splash round the outer circle. Perfectly red and round like someone had done it intentionally. They had squeezed the cut on their finger and held it out, waited, holding themselves as the blood gathered and throbbed, suspended, forming into a drip as they squeezed harder still, persuading it to fall. And it did fall. It fell and hit the tile, and the silence with which it hit was unbroken, like the blood had issued from the tile itself and stayed there, waiting to be wiped.

I held the test out and, careful not to let it drip, gave it a shake and pointed the tip downwards. The instructions said to keep it held down or to set it on a flat surface and wait three minutes.

I pictured Karen sitting on the toilet not long before, her spoiled look of haplessness, the things she said and the way she said them, and I felt, for the first time in a long time, the sweeping sensation of knowing exactly what I wanted and had to do. It was sudden and uplifting and I stood and pulled my jeans up, didn‘t bother washing the piss from my hands or the wetness from the stick. My purpose was my time and I had to fulfil it or break down.

She was back at the breakfast bar dabbing her eyes with kitchen roll, the same desolate look on her face. The cowering of herself, of her being terribly wronged.

Shona was texting on her phone. She looked at me apologetically, like someone suddenly realising they‘ve done wrong.

‘I‘ll be out of your hair,‘ she said. ‘I don‘t wanna be a problem. I don‘t wanna impose. I‘m so sorry …‘

‘You‘re not imposing,‘ Karen said. ‘You‘re not doing anything wrong. It‘s him.‘

Her contempt was unconvincing, and I held my hands out. ‘I‘m sorry,‘ I said. ‘I didn‘t mean to react badly.‘

I went to Shona and placed a wet hand on her shoulder. She looked at it, then at my face. I sighed heavily and shook my head. ‘This was all just a bit sudden for me. I didn‘t mean to react as I did. Please,‘ I said, and I squeezed her shoulder. ‘Please stay with us. I want you to stay with us. It‘s the least we can do with all you‘re goin through.‘

She turned to Karen whose mouth fell open, her look of panic lingering for a tenth of a second too long. ‘Are ye sure?‘ she said. ‘Like, I‘ll find somewhere else. Maxi offered me his settee …‘

‘You can‘t stay with Maxi. You‘re stayin with us.‘

‘Are you sure?‘

‘Of course, Shona. You‘re welcome here for as long as you need.‘

She was stunned, and when she glanced at Karen I knew part of her regretted treating me as she had.

‘Thank you so much.‘ Her chin wobbled, that heart-swelling sensation of having someone care seeping through her. ‘I should tell Maxi,‘ she said.

‘Is he not away?‘

‘No. He‘s in the blue bathroom.‘

She took another breath to compose herself and left the room with her phone in hand. Karen went to follow, then stopped halfway. She looked at me like I would regret this, like this was the final straw, and I didn‘t care. I smiled and shrugged like it was the least I could do.

How many minutes had gone by? Couldn‘t be three. Not yet.

‘I‘ll stay on the settee sure,‘ I said. ‘Yous can have the bed, I don‘t mind.‘

Before she could say anything, Shona screamed. Something dropped to the floor with a clink. Karen and I looked at each other, distrusting ourselves, distrusting the yelp, and scampered out to the hall to the blue bathroom.

Shona had the door open, one hand on the handle, reeling. ‘What‘s he doin?‘ she said. ‘What the fuck?‘

Maxi was standing by the sink, a litter of empty nail polish bottles scattered at his feet. He‘d his plastic bag held to his mouth, the inside all splattered blue, pink and bright orange, and he was sucking from it, deep long intakes of air as he swayed. His eyes were half closed and he gazed at us as if from across a road, a mile-wide road, and he waved and smiled and sucked deeper, the bag crumpling and crackling like static on a badly tuned TV.

The smell was overwhelming. Karen covered her mouth and nose. Shona watched with wide eyes. She giggled, glanced between us and him and stepped back. Maxi raised a hand, took a deep inhalation and let it drop. He closed his eyes and stumbled against the sink, then slowly raised his chin up and up until he stared at the ceiling. A silent moment of suspended high. I could almost see him lifting, rising up with his expanding lungs and—just as I thought he was about to go, right as his tip toes were about to leave the floor and drift upwards—there was a beep. Two beeps. Beep Beep.

Karen and Shona looked at me. ‘What was that?‘

I took the pregnancy test from my pocket and held it out. Maxi‘s bag crackled and he exhaled.

Negative.