By Stephen Thom
It was starting to rain when I arrived home in the evening. A woman was crying on the stairwell as I walked up, on the landing underneath my own flat. This was the first time I had seen her; perhaps she had just moved in.
I rested my bag on the concrete floor and made towards her. Her head was turned away from me, forehead pressed against the wood of what I presumed was her door, and she was scratching at her hand as she sniffled.
'Are you okay?' I asked, raising the pitch of my voice to saccharine levels, and instantly regretting the general stupidity of the phrase.
'l'm fine, I'm fine, I'm sorry,' she mumbled. She lifted her left hand and rubbed it across her nose. I saw that her hand was bleeding slightly from the scratching and stepped back a little, suddenly feeling awfully close.
'Just a wee shock, I think,' she coughed, fiddling in her pockets and producing a set of keys. 'I was... I saw two men in a side street, on my way home, and one of them, one - '
Here she coughed, sniffled again, and dropped her keys. I stepped forward, bending to pick them up. She flashed a wan, sticky smile as I pressed them into her hands.
'One of them?' I prompted. She scratched her head and looked directly at me for the first time. She looked young, with slick, straight black hair and gaunt-but-pretty features. Her eyes were laced with red lines.
'One of them had - he had his hand over the other man's mouth... pressing him against the wall. I should have... I thought I saw a knife, you know, just a flash of something. I went - I don't know, I just ran - '
'Sounds scary,' I pushed, staring at a tiny red blood bulb winding down her wrist, 'did you phone the police?'
'I did, I did, round the corner. I hope it's - I hope it wasn't something terrible, and I didn't... I was fine, I was okay 'til I got in, I think it's just been a busy week, just everything, moving and - '
'You did the right thing,' I said, pressing the palm of my hand against her upper arm as her eyes widened again. 'lt's probably just some idiots being idiots.'
The streetlights had come on outside, and they flowered in the landing window as we bemoaned society, muttered generalities and belated introductions, and went our separate ways with her waving awkwardly whilst scrabbling, shaky-handed, at her lock.
Inside I changed into a t-shirt and shorts, and crawled into bed. My mind felt numb and elastic with tiredness. I had spent the better part of the day in a rank fog of memories.
The morning had washed by on the threads of an incomplete dream that had disintegrated as my eyelids slid open. For some reason I had found myself dreaming, and consequently thinking about, a man I had not seen for over ten years; an old friend. He had died some eight years ago - a boating accident, I think - but my dream had dredged him up and placed us both back in an old flat we had frequented, surrounded by many familiar faces. My last memory of our otherworld-interaction was of him asking me who I was, and myself trying to explain to him that we were friends.
I sat smoking by lamplight, sinking images of scratched hands, lost faces, and hands clamped over mouthes into the thin yellow stream fanning into a broad balloon shape near the ceiling.
I awoke feeling clammy and cloudy-headed, rolling around to see my clock lit at 2:00am. The night pressed a crisp silence, and the dark around me hung with a set sort of density.
Reaching for my tobacco, I unfolded the packet and peered mournfully at the dregs inside. My face slid to re-attach itself to the pillow when I remembered it was Friday night. I flipped the duvet off before it could suck the appeal of a night-time stroll to the twenty-four hour shop from me.
Every step on the stairwell felt percussive and amplified, and my breath bloomed in white trails as I tapped outside. A weak but insistent rain wet my scalp, and I was turning right to push off when a familiar sniffling burrowed its way into my mind.
Squinting into the sidestreet beside the block entrance, I felt a raindrop bulb on my eyelash like a little bug. The drilled patter hit a monotonous, dull beat, chipping empty time away with staccato bursts. Through weaving walls of black, I saw her step forward. Her dark hair was pasted to her head.
'I saw two men,' she said, quietly. I shuffled, thrusting my hands deep into my coat pockets.
'I know,' I chimed, and it felt as if my voice cut strips through the night. 'You told me.'
She seemed then to hobble forward, and I reached out and caught her by the shoulder. Her fingers dug into my arm a little.
'Have you been drinking?' I said, feeling her wet hair close to my cheek.
'l don't drink,' she snapped, fingers clenching deeper at my arm. Her eyes fixed on me, and I saw a sheen of sweat coating her face under the streetlight. It was odd that she should be sweating. She seemed about to speak again, but then appeared to stop herself.
'You'd better - ' I wiggled my shoulder to free my arm. 'You should get to bed, you've had a tough day. You shouldn't be out here.'
Under the steady patter, framed by the lamp above, she pressed her palm over my mouth. I felt my lips pushing against her warm, wet skin; her thumb settling just under my eye-socket. I listened to my breath suck for a split second against the pillow, then she clasped harder and in the same beat pulled her hand away, turning to walk off.
'You should get some sleep,' I shouted as she disappeared into the stairwell.
The rain was heavier as I left the shop, drumming the pavement. The street felt close and boxed-in underneath it, and I pulled my hood up, hastening and splashing through gathering puddles. I thought again of my dream. I wondered why it had stayed with me so strongly that day, and why this particular memory was returning to me now. How was I able to forget a person for so long, only to have their image suddenly and searingly imprinted again inside my head?
I was tripping into a jog, pulling my hood tight, when I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. Two distinct shapes flickered at the edge of my vision, spirited from the darkness of the alley I had passed. Checking back, I ducked down and craned my neck into the black tunnel. The rain beat the street around me and I could see the warped silhouettes of two people; one was pressed back into the wall. I saw a sliver of white - a hand, pressing against a neck.
A car ploughed past and illuminated the young couple, caught in an inebriated cinch. Straightening up, I ran back, my brain full to bursting point of all the thoughts I should have been having years before.
Shuffling into the flat corridor, I pulled my hoodie off and rubbed it over my soaked head. The hall was still lightless as I pressed and released the fabric from my face, and into this black template I pressed and released vivid images I had thought long forgotten. I realised that, in my dream, my friend had had a beard. He hadn't in the time I had known him. Perhaps if I had given more of my mental time to him, this change would not have happened in the other place.
I also realised I could hear a rustling noise. My impulse then - for some reason - was to move towards it, without pausing to turn on the hall light. I found her padding round the corner of my bedroom, her hair still dripping. The window spilt threads of moonlight, picking out the knife in her hand.
My head churned and I leaned it against the doorframe. I felt sure I had locked the door, but even now, I couldn't remember unlocking it on my return. I couldn't remember thinking of my friend for almost ten years prior to last night.
'I saw two men,' she hissed; I could see the white at the corners of her mouth, the distant dots of her pupils, and I knew then.
'You told me,' I murmured, and my voice felt like someone else's. I wondered how many other people I had forgotten, and if there would still be time, in this life, for their energy to return to me in some way; if I would be far away, in the place I came from, by the time these tugs reached out to bruise back pieces of the people I'd used.
She was closer now, slipping past the bed, and she caressed the sheets with the tip of the knife.
'I saw what you did to that man,' she whispered.
I blinked in the still dark. I tried to think of what I had been doing today, and could not. It was as if, in order to think about people I care or had cared about, I was required to obliterate everything else.
'lt was probably just some idiots being idiots,' I choked, and once more it was an old thing, a sound from another place.
Her face bled through the still, a sick white cut from black. I could smell the rainwater in her hair. As her breath came in heavy, warm rolls near my chin, I reached down to clasp the hand holding the knife. A curl of lank, wet hair touched my cheek and I leaned down to press my lips against the bulbs of her own.