Around 3am I opened my door to the Brighton air and carried myself to the end of my porch. The air was thick with the homeward bound, throwing smiles and slapping shoulders: “I fucking love you, mate. Really, I do. Fucking great night! Did you see the arse on that girl? Who needs tits with an arse like that?” Just past the noise, I saw the architect of my awakening wandering towards me, her arms crossed, her head down. “Do you have alcohol?” I said something about needing fresh air and slotted a Benson between my lips, offering one to my companion in kind.
“How was Uni today?”
“Not too bad. Statistics. You?”
She gulped on her cigarette.
“Modernism. It was ok. You’re doing the wrong course, you know. It isn’t you.”
“We could have talked about Uni on the phone.”
I did my best to look grim. A smudged smile is sent my way.
“Thank you for waking up.”
She took our cigarettes and crunched them underfoot. No time to waste. Her arm slotted into the crook of my elbow, and she made our way towards the half-open door. The living room was messy, but nothing about that was unexpected. Stepping over bursting ashtrays and wind-chime empty cans, we descended to a mottled sofa, the ghostly whiff of past company steadily replacing the humming scent of the street.
“He did it again.”
“We were out, and he just sat there. He did nothing. He saw everything and he did nothing. He must have seen it.”
“He thinks that I can take it. He doesn’t understand.”
“I was with Steve, James, and Will. Oh! And James’s new girlfriend. I don’t like her that much. She… Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
“We… Well, ‘I’ went to the bar to get another round, and there was this guy. I suppose you could call him good-looking. He was with his mates. I ordered, and he offered to pay. I told him how much, and he said that it was ok. He said that it’d be ‘his pleasure’. I smile, thank him and take the tray. He grabs my arm. He tells me that I owe him. That I could pay him back some other way. He wouldn’t let go. He wouldn’t stop looking at me! He tried to move in for a kiss, but the tray kept him away. He was so drunk. He stank. He grabbed my bum with his free hand and said that if he hadn’t paid for those, then he’d have thrown them on the floor to get to me. He laughed. I told him that my boyfriend was behind me. I hoped that would be enough. There had to be some spark of decency flickering away in him.”
“There wasn’t. There isn’t.”
“I know. He lets me go and I almost lose balance. I feel faint, like that time I gave blood without eating afterwards, remember? You know those nature shows? The ones that teach you about survival? It was like what Bear Grylls says about wolves and bears – you never take your eyes off them; you never turn your back. I couldn’t look away. They looked hungry. I started moving backwards. This time was different. This time hurt more. Nobody fucking did anything! I don’t fucking understand it – it was so fucking obvious! I had to turn eventually. I had to get away quickly – I was in heels, for fuck’s sake! I had to get back to the group, back to the night, back to the fun. I couldn’t have brought it up then – I would have ruined the mood. Fuck, I can’t bring it up now. He wouldn’t care, anyway. I know what he was like before me. I’ve heard things from Emma, and she’d never lie about that. I’m so sorry for bothering you this late.”
“Don’t worry. You know that I’m a morning person.”
A tepid smile. Another cigarette.
“You know how I like it.”
I cross into the kitchen, leaving her to smoke. This was the most that she’d ever told me. Other times she’d smirked it away, making a comment about how they must have “good taste.” Something like that, anyway. This was the first time that she’d called me like this. I could feel her fighting back tears through the phone, battling each word as it fell from her mouth. She didn’t want to ask for help. She didn’t know how to. The kettle roared as I spooned instant into her mug. No sugar, no milk. Taking it back through I found her asleep, a half-smoked cigarette nestling between her dangling fingers. I set down the mugs and took it for myself, settling down beside her. I took a sip of my coffee and a couple of drags before thinking about getting her a blanket. I look towards the one on the sofa. I decide on her coat. I take it off the door and drape it over her chest. I walk towards the door and turn out the light. It was long-coat weather.
Well, she can wear whatever she likes.