Jessica Gregory: “A Quiet One”

Scuffing soles on the damp tarmac and how it glistens in the orange street light; mists of expelled breath in the crisp, cold air; the screams of foxes; an uneasy footing; a stumble that lasts forever till it’s all knees, and grazed hands, and a snigger of acceptance. Little hands tapping his back; gasping, relentless laughter; her wobbling around him in delirium until her heels pull her down too; their giggles resounding into the night, and behind the dark windows above the half-sleeping turn over with a sigh.

A pause at a lamppost that freezes the fingers of his hand, a chicken bone below as he bows with sudden sickness, then a gushing from his gullet and a rancid taste in his throat. Another near stumble. The glaring yellow of a Volkswagan Polo. A cat that offers a glint of its eyes before skipping across the road, and a glass door that steals away his reflection as it swings open. A hand – soft and small – that pulls him in; a tongue through his lips in a lift; a grab and a pull; the bing of a halt; a push and press against a wall; rolling on cool sheets; nails down his back; a tang in the air that grows more intense with heaves and gasps and roaming hands; smudges of legs and breasts and the yellow light of a bedside lamp; all together, half-remembered, twisting memories in the neurons.

*

A brain that has shrunk in disgust pulls on its lining and echoes its distaste along the brow and temples of a face that winces as particles of light spill in through a cruelly placed crack in the blinds. Eyes prickle along their optic nerves with the pain of it. And this, his body, has lain still for hours, but inside the sweating case of his head neurons are dutifully firing, testing their response times, linking together synapses unlinked the night before, simultaneously denying sleep and consciousness.

*

Pull-ups on scaffolding to impress; a wail of caution from his target; a burning by the bone. Was there police tape being unfurled? Sirens sounding outside, mixing with the Drum & Bass, where the smokers watched with little concern. A splatter of blood on the ground? That tape rolling on through the gloved hands of a tired copper. Red and white, and what is the difference between red and white, and, blue and white? A different warning maybe, a different crime? Standing with others behind the line, his new friend beside, who points a hand off to the shadows on the ground – the soft rain of a blood that dripped down from a bludgeoned head, a smattering of glass that twinkles in the flashing lights (a Smirnoff Ice), and an unlaced shoe. She whispers something in his ear, this strange accomplice, with a hand that rummages in his jeans pocket; a rush of blood as searching, caged fingers deftly reach for his balls.

A bus he couldn’t stomach; a leap off, her left behind; a clamber in the dark for each other; a stop away; the magnetism of a promised bed that draws them back together.

*

Senses return one by one. Sight first. The light stabbing at one eyelid, spinning off twinkling pixels against the fleshy, orange backdrop. And then noises knock, the soft rumble of not too distant cars – the urban equivalent of the moan of the wind. Doors are banging from above and below, and voices mumbling in the street – the deeper tones resonating softly through the mattress and pillow.  Taste returns with such a vengeance that it ties a mind back to a body; Steven moves his tongue against the dried out groves of the roof of his mouth, its pores stuffed with cider and ash and other vaguely recognisable juices. A calamitous reconstruction of mental process strains to begin, but all that evolves is a headache crashing against its case and the expulsion of groan laden air. His body sketches in the details of his surroundings: his horizontal orientation; half a face encased in pillow; a stifling heat as thick as fog around him; and somewhere far off, a tingling nerve, itching in the recesses of a thigh that doesn’t yet feel like his own.

*

The slamming of tiny glasses on the sticky bar – one, two, three, go! Fog in the air; strange, shaking, racing heartbeats pumping through dry-ice. Dave shouting in his ear, shadows on his shirt, chemicals dancing in his eyes. Tingling blue dots scatter across his vision, dissolving the crowd into an undulating sea, and suddenly a face up to his, a snarling mouth, and a forehead slamming down. Bloody nose – all over his front. Blurs again. Seas of faces. Cheap tissue blotched with bright blood, behind its crinkled corner hides a gentle face, a little hand that brushes his nose as if patting the muzzle of a dog. Now she can raise a corner of a mouth in a sly smile, and he can search its meaning in the strip lighting of the ladies toilets. Long-legged creatures above him gazing into dirtied mirrors; damp floor seeping through his trousers.

 *

As the material world slowly fixes him on this bed, a gasping throat and acidic head are crying out for water. Stick a hand out of the covers and see where it lands, or face the light. As a glassy, cradled eye-ball is revealed to the morning its pupil violently quivers and contracts, but it is too late, a flash of pain sinks back through the brain and a wave of nausea rises. He turns out of the offending beam, establishes fore and background, before reaching for a glass of water on the side. He throws it down his throat, pauses to regain, and lets the empty pint glass rest in his hand a while. As he lifts his head the walls of the room seem to drop in around him: he is not at home. The disassociation jars in his brain and more nausea rises. Worse to come, as with the disjunction of a bad dream the surroundings collapse into unfamiliarity: the matt white walls with classy, steel framed pictures perched upon them; the huge windows; the corners too far out; the epic bed he is stranded in; unknown smells; and the subtle, whispering breath of an accomplice on this huge nocturnal raft.     Again his unruly body has cast him into bed against good judgement and despite the  inevitable morning fallout – the sticky guilt and more paralysed brain cells. There’ll be bruises, mystery bruises on thighs and shins, no doubt a sodden shirt and some lifted confectionery scattered around the floor (sweet tooth kicks-in early morning).

*

The Greenbrook Arms, safe and warm, and Julia, cool and calm. A quiet one; the soft hum of older voices, their elbows polishing the bar; mist collecting on the window panes and reflections hiding in among them. Just a quiet one, back before close. Her gazing solemnly at him, through new frames, over her glass. Tired eyes are red from the hours before, the kitchen disaster, broken plates, sound waves bouncing off the walls, pricking up the neighbour’s ears . But the fire clicks and spits behind him and dances in her shiny eyes; his tie is loosened from the day’s work, a Tesco bag beside him – an unsatisfying dinner. A quiet night ahead he might have thought; a stray back home through the  descending cold, arm in arm, forgiven and forgot; glinting, icy swirls beneath the wipers of the windscreens. But bitter turns to whiskey shooter, wills are crumbling and the bell tolls too soon. Julia on a solitary road home, toes numbing on the journey up the hill, tingling for the radiators in the house left burning.

*

Some sleeping soul beside him that – propped up on his elbows – he looks down on. A mass of tangled black hair across a mystery face, a healthy tan to her skin, an even distribution, her upper torso exposed to show an olive tint that rolls over her breasts as delicately as it does her shoulders, hinting at Mediterranean origins. Given any other state of mind this present to the eyes would have knocked into deep primordial impulses – kicked off some salivation, prompted some rushing in capillaries below – but right now his stomach just turns over a little and he lies back down. He dares to turn and face her on his pillow.  She’s young, not a crease on her. And where of Julia, her wet eye-lashes, the mottled cheek he’d blushed with curses the night before? Visions of a half empty bed, curtains falling off their hooks that he’d promised he would fix. Would it be steely silence from her? A rattled woman tearing-up soft furnishings? Nothing?

 *

Narrative returns, sequences, moments, a heavy memory, and premonitions: walking in through the door, nonchalant, head high, nothing to say; curses again maybe; the impenetrable guilty sickness of inflicting pain; plates flying; forgiveness; all this and others? All is sewn together for digestion on the icy morning walk home, mist emitting from is nostrils, and the cold sunshine glittering and winking at him as it bounces off the frozen tarmac.

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Jessica is a writer and editor based in London. By day she masquerades as one of the waking dead in the tertiary industries and by night she scribbles out her stories and criticism. She is forever getting lost, but is never without a book. Her obsessions include, but are not limited to:  censorship; architecture; transgressive literature; and radical and independent publishing. Her writing influences are wide and varied (but she tends to insist W.G.Sebald is the best), and in her own writing she is currently exploring themes of memory  and the contemporary urban experience. Her writing has been published online with: Inky Needles, The UnstituiteWords With Jam, and degeneratesblog.

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