S L E E P T A L K
First published at Nerve.com.
He forced the tap back off and held the glass to his lips. Squinting into the darkness, he nodded. He moved the glass from his mouth.
Did I wake you?
She was sitting on the step from the hallway to the kitchen, against the streetlight spilling through the translucent glass of the door; behind her the light leaked along the floor of the hallway. It seeped into the cracks and splashed the peeling skirting boards.
No, I don’t think so. Woke when I saw you weren’t there. What time is it?
He looked at the clock but couldn’t read the hands. Half twelve, he said. Maybe one?
I have to get up in the morning. Her bearing brightened as she stepped into the kitchen. She smiled in the dark. I dreamt of that missing boy, she said. Watery light through the window half-lit her face in profile, pooling in her eyes. Such an odd dream.
When he drank the water with the shock of it so cold through his sleepiness he thought maybe the turn of the tap had thawed ice in the plumbing. It was a cold night and the chill in the water sang in his mouth and throat. He set the glass down on the side.
He forced the tap back off and held the glass to his mouth. Squinting, he nodded. Did I wake you?
No. Think I woke when you weren’t there. Coming back to bed?
I see that. Your boxers are tangled. She swallowed. Also that t-shirt is back-to-front. What time is it? She yawned, let herself fall back on to the floorboards. The light through the door limned her raised chin, her breasts, her swollen belly and knees; scabbed knees like a child’s, and bruises on her thighs.
He opened the fridge and the bright electric light inside it shocked his eyes. Half a sandwich lying in a packet; a few cherry tomatoes in a plastic tray; a third of a pint of milk, the top of the bottle rimmed with cream, on the shelf inside the door. He wasn’t hungry, not for any of that. He shut the door and leant back against it and downed the water and set the glass on the side by the kettle, then scratched his face. Half one, he said. Maybe two.
I wake you up?
Woke when I saw you weren’t there. What’re you doing? She yawned. It’s late.
I couldn’t sleep.
Does there have to be something up?
No, there does not have to be something up. It was a question. She went into the bathroom adjacent to the kitchen and pulled the cold tap on and threw the water over her face. She stared at her reflection in the mirror, yawning, closed her eyes, tried to remember her dreams. Then she pulled faces at herself in the glass: blew out her cheeks, stuck out her tongue. I’m going back to bed, she said. Flat-footed, she trudged up the stairs. Good night or good morning, whatever it is.
Finding himself, he lay still and listened to her bare feet pad down the staircase. She swore softly after knocking into something in the dark, muttering low threats against whatever object had leered forward to assault her. He listened to her turn on the tap in the bathroom downstairs and realised he was thirsty too: he rolled over to find the glass of water on the table at his bedside, but instead, flailing, knocked it to the floor; and he groaned; lay back. Let it stain, he thought. Let it leave a mark. He would leave it for the morning.
Irretrievably awake now, he climbed out of bed and went to the window, pulling open the heavy curtain. An orange streetlamp glowed through the bare branches of the horse chestnut tree down in the street below. A neighbour’s cat was toying with a small pigeon in the gutter where the tree’s roots sunk beneath the tarmac. The bell on its collar jingled in the silence. The groggy bird fluttered and twitched: the cat caressed it with its paw like a lover or a parent, then sunk its teeth into its neck. He turned around and saw the shape she had left twisted in the bedclothes, a stranger’s shape. Sleep made her dysphoric and loquacious. One night she had said: I can’t love you like you love me. I can’t love you like you love me, crying softly into her pillow before giggling through tears and whispering Not like that, stupid. Like this. Sometimes when she addressed him in the night he didn’t know whether it was dreams talking or her waking self. Sometimes it was neither, sometimes both. Sometimes he would think she’d spoken and he would begin to answer, begin to gesture with his hands, before realising the question was imagined, however urgent the asking.
Smelling her behind him, he turned around.
He turned the tap back off and held the glass to his mouth. Squinting, he nodded. He moved the glass from his lip and scratched his head.
She was sat on the step from the hallway to the kitchen, against the streetlight seeping through the door; the binbags waiting beneath a dusting of snow along the path outside looked through the glass like children hunched and still. She picked at a scab on her knee.
What time is it?
He looked at the clock but couldn’t read the hands. Half four, he said. Maybe five.
She groaned. I have to get up in the morning. Can I fire my boss, do you think?
When he drank the water with the shock of it so cold through his stupor he thought maybe the turn of the tap had thawed ice in the plumbing. It was a cold night and the chill in the water sang in his mouth and throat. He set the glass down on the side.
I dreamt they found that child, she said. On the NEC rooftop near the Odeon. Soil packed in his stomach and throat. A dog rose was flowering between his teeth.
Hello, she said.
Her warm mouth over his ear; she ran her hand along his spine.
Are you awake?
He mumbled something into the pillow. She drew him round on to his front and watched the light through the open curtains wash across the lunar contours of his torso.
Anyone home? She kissed his collar bone. Anybody there?
She cupped his testicles suddenly, quietly laughing. She held his cock in her hand and bit his shoulder.
I can’t sleep, she said. Are you awake? She caressed his hair while he stared ahead into the darkness. The wind blew against the window. Snow fell through the orange streetlight and was thrown up in the wind with the litter of the road and blown along the slate roofs and it settled in the boughs of the tree and melted to slush in the gutter. A small bell jingled beneath a parked car. I’m talking to you, she said.
Is there anybody home?