She wakes up slow, opens her dull eyes expecting the new day to glow in, but no. It’s still night. She blinks, yawns into her pillow, stretches beneath the duvet. It’s the pig bedspread, the one her mother made. Her dozy palms bobble over the linen pigs stitched onto the cotton, sleep-weakened fingers catching in the felt swirls of their curly pink tails. She pulls one out gently, lets it tug back into place, and smiles.
In the distance, muted by the thick velvet curtains swaddling her second floor window, there’s the sound of drunken students calling out on the spine. Back from the Carleton probably, she muses, fresh off the Uni bus and trying their hardest to act like louts. 3, 4 in the morning perhaps.
She rolls over, arches her back, sighs dreamily. Nudges a foot out from under the duvet, snuggles a hand underneath her double pillows, and slowly drifts back to sleep, only vaguely wondering why she woke at all.
Image from here.
He waits, heart chain firing like a bag of firecrackers in his chest. He’s sure she can hear it, or his panicked breath rasping over gritted teeth, or the thoughts screaming through his head that now is the time, do something dammit!
But he doesn’t, and he waits. Listens as clubbers brawl down the spine outside, caterwauling like a band of hyenas. Drunk, they must be, he thinks. Out having fun, taking drugs, getting laid. He hates them.
He’s slumped in the chair by the door, opposite her bed, cursing himself for every second of inaction. He should be on her now, making it happen, he knows. If only he hadn’t slipped, he thinks, if only everything had gone to plan. But she’d woken up, he knew from the sudden gasp of breath, the movement, and he’d frozen where he fell, uneasy on the chair.
She moves on the bed. He can hear the downy shush as her soft body rubs against the duvet. He waits until she stops, until her breathing becomes regular. He tells himself, any second, I’ll be there. I’ll do it. But he doesn’t move, and as he waits, her gentle sighs lulling him softly, her perfume in the air, all he can do is feel the old sadness rising up again. He waits, as emotion balls inside the pit of his stomach, frustration and anger and love, all the while seeing pictures of how it could be, of him lying alongside her, breathing in time with her, pictures of him on the inside, in the warmth.
Not like this. He disgusts himself.
So he waits, though he doesn’t know what for, and he wonders how one day brought him to this. Slumped on a chair in her room, starry-eyed in the dark, clutching the knife so tight in his fist and filling up with this deep and ugly pain.
He’s sitting at his desk again. The room light is on, too bright on his wet face. He’s still crying, but quietly, no longer loud enough for the others to hear. Jim has gone away now, given up, and he’s on his own again.
They’d been playing cards. He was getting drunk, a little, and loud. He was even winning, he’d never played poker before. He was getting lucky, and silly, and he was laughing too loud.
One of them, the rugby boy from the floor above, had slapped his face. Not hard. It was a joke. He’d seen them do it to each other, all the time. It barely even hurt. He’d called him a cheeky bugger and slapped his face, and they’d all laughed.
He knew it was a joke, that this was friendly, it was good, but he couldn’t stop just staring at him, straight ahead. He couldn’t stop his eyes from misting up, his face from blushing. He couldn’t stop everything as it suddenly loomed around him, as the room swelled too big and too small at the same time and he realized how very thin he was, next to the rugby boy. How very small and helpless he was next to them all.
“What’s up, Rich?” His flat-mate Jim had asked, but mostly they were laughing and enjoying the joke.
The rugby boy had slapped him again, gently, more like a stroke, but he couldn’t stop himself from wincing. He understood, but he couldn’t make it work. He was staring, and soon they were all staring, and slowly everyone got quiet.
Tears had started to run down his face. His knees were trembling against his chair legs. He’d jumped up, sprawled himself over the table knocking over beers and chips in a frenzied bid to escape the moment. There were hands pushing at him, voices calling out to “knock it off” and “get off the damn table”. He pulled at the far edge but something was holding him back, he turned, it was the rugby boy, he looked angry, holding his legs. He’d kicked, and the hold came loose.
He’d slithered off the table’s edge into one of the blonde girls laps, rolled over and cracked his hip against the metal leg of her chairs, sunk to the floor in a slop of beer and abuse.
“You fucking retard!” he heard the rugby boy shouting, as more hands reached down to him, helping him up, voices complaining about spoilt beer, the game ruined.
“It was only a bloody joke!” shouted the rugby boy. “It was only a bloody joke!”
Hands lifted him to kneeling, the tangle of chair legs were scraped to the side, and he’d scampered on all fours through the kitchen door, face stinging, not looking back. All the way bouncing off the blurry corridor walls, back to safety in his room.
Jim had knocked on the door for a long time, talking softly through the wood, asking him if he was OK. Saying the guy was an idiot, ignore him. Ignore them all.
He’d sat shivering on his bed, sobs wracking his frame, trying to be brave and hold it in. Thinking of what his mother would say if she could see him now, crying like this after being slapped once, twice, a joke, and ruining everything.
He touches fingers to his face, where the first gentle blow landed, and he hates himself again.
Later that night, he’s walking round the perimeter road. Trying to make sense of things, but feeling only self-loathing and pity. He rounds the southern loop past Pendle college, the gay fairy lights in some third floor kitchen overhead making him feel sick with jealousy. He wants to punch something again, but he’s already bloodied his knuckles on a brick wall by the science labs.
That’s when he sees it, the poster pasted on a green recycling tub, lit up with a security lamp. He’d seen them before, but never paid attention. There was one in the underpass, a great big banner, sponsored by the Carleton. There were mini ones in the block kitchens, in every room, they’d even given out branded pens and mugs at the freshers fair. He just hadn’t thought of it.
Scared? Confused? Lonely?
Need someone to talk to?
Nightline, the campus listening service.
Every night, all night, 10pm-8am
Walking the other half of the loop back to his block, he’s thinking over those words. Scared, confused, lonely. What they meant.
County college spreads out before him, then County field where he knows the rugby boys practise in the mornings. Right now though, it’s his. He could run out, skip on the grass if he wanted to, he thinks. To make a point, to prove something, but he doesn’t. It would look too stupid. He isn’t afraid, that would be ridiculous. But then, maybe he doesn’t understand the difference.
Scared? Confused? Lonely?
Was that him? Was he the poster child?
At his desk again, finger poised over the push buttons of his tatty room phone, handset in hand. Did this mean something? Was this an admission?
He dials the number, and holds the receiver to his ear. It rings three times, connects.
“Hello, Nightline,” says the phone, the voice of a girl. She sounds happy he thinks. He opens his mouth, closes it, hangs up, then shoves the phone across the desk. It skids a little way, but the rubber pads underneath slow it down, resting within arm’s reach.
He sighs low, looks around his room, takes in his life. The walls mostly barren white, like a jail cell. There’s the college social planner, it’s neon glare describing fun nights out at the Carleton, Tokyo Jo’s, lazer quest and so on. There’s the university calendar, emblazoned with advertising. That’s it.
On his desk the computer his mother had presented him with austerely, before he’d left. He’d smiled, said “thanks mum,” and thought she was about to cry. Instead, she’d patted him on the shoulder a few times, said “you’re all grown up now”.
The curtains and the bedding are all university standard, a grey wash of circles and lines. Above his desk were shelves, stacked with all the books the course primer said he’d need for this year, plus a few from next year. He’d brought some movies too, though he had no TV to play them on. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ by Capra. The Indiana Jones trilogy. One of the Batman movies, from the middle, maybe with Chris O’Donell. That was on an unmarked tape though, the liner had got torn off.
Above him, the bare white light-tube set against porous white roof panels, uneven black lines spread through like the cracks in a half-broken window. He’s heard they’re demolishing these blocks, next year, so they don’t care if they’re a mess.
In the closet, all of his clothes. His school suit, and old boy tie. The twisted jeans his mum had bought for his birthday, amongst older things, sweaters collected over various Christmases, ‘going out shirts’ garnered from charity stores, club things from the sales.
His blue dressing gown hangs from a hook on the back of the door. Underneath it, he knows, lies the Nightline plaque, with the message, and the number. One nailed up in every room.
He’d meant to buy some posters, to fill out the place, but every time he’d gone over to the sales in Alexandra Square, he’d stopped short. It was too busy. Too much noise, too many people bustling round the racks jammed together. He thought someone would call him out, tell everyone what a fake he was, he didn’t know what he was doing, he wasn’t the kind to buy posters. He knew that if he could just take his time, not be rushed, then it would be OK, he could pick, but it was always busy, and he couldn’t do it like that.
He’d assumed there would be photos by now too, to plaster like crazily coloured brickwork over these blank canvas cell walls, like everyone else did with their rooms. He had a camera, but every time he took it with him, on the college events, when Jim dragged him out with the rest of the block, he didn’t know when to use it. Am I having fun now? he’d ask himself. Do I want this moment on my wall? Sitting here, drinking alone? Standing on the dance floor, swaying on the edge of this group of laughing people? Is this fun?
The light is off now. Out the window all he can see is the block opposite. One of the kitchens over there is still full of people, playing music. Ricky Martin drifts over the cool spring air, along with snippets of their chat, one liners, laughter. Someone starts singing loud and out of key.
He draws the grey curtains, closes the window. Taps his head with his knuckles, stares at the phone. Taps his head until it begins to hurt. Then he snatches up the phone, dials again.
“Hello Nightline,” comes the girl’s voice again, loud and happy in his barren room.
“Hi.” He says, voice croaky from not speaking for hours. He clears his throat, tries again. “Hi.” Too loud.
“Hi there,” says the phone brightly. “How are you tonight?”
She’s got an American accent, he realizes.
“I’m OK. Fine.”
“Yeah? Me too. Anything you wanna talk about?”
“Um,” he says, but she says nothing. “No.”
“OK,” says the phone. “That’s cool.”
Then she says nothing, and he says nothing. The silence draws out. Every few minutes, he can hear her making some little noise. She coughs, or sniffs, or clears her throat.
“We’re a totally anonymous, confidential service,” says the phone, after maybe 5 minutes has passed. He realizes, he’s just waiting for an excuse. He’s called, after all. All he wants is an excuse.
“I won’t judge you,” says the phone.
Then he starts talking, and the phone listens. She listens. He finds himself talking to fill all the space she gives him. He feels pathetic as he does it, telling all this to what he knows is just another student, sat in another room somewhere on campus, and it feels like surrender, but there’s good in there too, he’s sure of it.
3 hours later, he’s still talking. His ear is sore from where the receiver presses up against it, even though he’s been switching sides every 15 minutes or so.
There have been silences, spaces when there was nothing to say. He let them go by. She let them go by. He’s told her about the slapping. She knows all about his family too. His life. She knows he’s never had sex, never had a real girlfriend. She knows his name, his course, his college. He’s told her everything, but knows nothing about her.
After a silence of 20 odd minutes, punctuated with her coughing, or sneezing, or humming, he asks her.
“What’s your name?”
She hesitates before answering.
“I’m not sure I want to talk about that,” says the phone.
“Why not?” he asks.
Again, she hesitates.
“It’s one of the tenets of Nightline. Confidentiality.”
“You know my name,” he says.
“You told me,” says the phone.
“Don’t you trust me?” he asks.
The longest pause.
“Marina,” says the phone finally. “That’s my name.”
“Marina,” he repeats.
Maybe an hour later, it’s starting to get light outside. He looks at his clock, 6 in the morning. She’ll be gone soon. They’ve been talking, mostly him, about his life. He doesn’t want her to go away, and he isn’t sure if that’s why he says what he says, or if it’s more genuine than that. He rationalises it even as the words come out, that perhaps it’s just that now he can trust her, that she’s earned this, but honestly, he’s not sure he even knows what the difference is anymore.
“I’ve been thinking about killing myself,” come the words, into one of the silences. “About committing suicide.” It makes him feel guilty and happy at the same time.
“Richard,” says the phone, renewed concern and shock conveyed all in his name. “You don’t mean that.”
Then he starts to cry, again. He can’t help it. It just pours out of him, triggered by the tone in her voice, and soon he’s bawling into the handset, the release feeling so good, so powerful, as she whispers words of support and encouragement direct into his ear.
“I’m sorry,” he blubbers. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s OK,” says the phone. “It isn’t your fault.”
Then he starts moving along, saying new things, things he’s sure he hasn’t thought before, and he only hopes he means them, as they come out. He only hopes he needs it.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he chokes, through sobs that give him a headache, a warm throb behind his eyes that feels so good, so good to be feeling something. “I don’t think I can do it.”
“Of course you can,” says the phone, re-assuring, caring. “You can, you can do it.”
“I can’t!” he cries, sobs afresh, and he knows he’s doing this himself, driving up the emotional stakes all the time, pushing all the buttons himself. He knows he could stop at any minute, call the whole thing off, but he doesn’t.
“I need help!” he mumbles. “I need some help. Please, Marina, help me.” He knows, he sounds pathetic, he means to.
“I, Richard. What can I do?”
“Fix this! Help me.”
“Richard, I don’t think I can,” says the phone, getting quieter. “I have some numbers, I’m not qualified to help.”
“I, I can’t, look. I’ll give you the number for the campus counselling service. Richard? I’ll even call them for you, I’ll make you an appointment for today. You have to go see them. You have to.”
He falls silent, but for snuffles into the phone. He knows. He knows he’s going to push it further, and he understands that it means he’s teetering on the edge. He realizes that this, here, is the turning point all of it led to, the poster, the calling, the crying, asking her name, everything. He understands, and he embraces it.
“You don’t care!” come the sudden shouted words into the phone. “You don’t care about me! If you wanted to help me, you could! You know you could, Marina, if that’s your real name! You lied to me!”
She gasps, but he keeps on going
“You’re a liar! You don’t care at all! You only do Nightline so you can listen to FREAKS like me, so you can laugh at us, like they laughed at me tonight! You’re no better than them! You’ll hang up, and you’re going to laugh at me!”
“No, Richard, no,” pleads the phone quietly, no longer confident, bright, the American edge diminished. He feels triumphant.
“You’re a LIAR! You don’t care about me! You don’t care at all!”
“Richard, please, no,” whimpers the phone.
“You don’t care! You don’t care if I live or die! You don’t care at all!”
Then he stops, realizes he’s whining into the plastic. Presses the handset violently against his head, straining for her voice. What he hears disgusts him, makes him sick with himself, but in that revulsion he is exultant. He glories in it.
“I do care,” she says weakly. “I’ll help you.”
She’s stroking his hair. Nobody has ever done that before. His head in her lap. Outside it’s getting light, but the curtains hold in the gloom.
He’s barely seen her face. It doesn’t matter.
“I’m sorry,” he moans, over and over again, eyes screwed up against her soft thighs, kneading the flesh of her calves with his thumbs.
“It’s alright,” she says, over and over again, fingers running through his lank hair.
She’d knocked quietly, at first. He’d said nothing, rubbing his face with his hands hard, reddening his eyes. The headache was dull and persistent now, and he revelled in it, because it meant something.
“Richard?” she’d whispered through the door. “It’s me. It’s Marina.”
He’d said come in and she had, the dawn’s light showering down the corridor from the open kitchen door, illuminating him and the room. He knew she’d be able to see the torn social planner on the bare wall, his sheets and clothes untidy and thrown about the room, the kitchen bread knife resting alone on the desk, by the phone.
He heard her gasp, and his heart skipped a beat.
He heard the shuffling sound of her moving, hesitant maybe. He hadn’t dared look up. He hadn’t wanted to give himself away.
“What have you done?” she’d asked, her sweetly accented voice high and unstable. He’d ached for it. “Your room, what have you done?”
The door clicked shut behind her, her delicate footfalls through the dark, and then her weight on the bed next to him, her hand on his back.
He’d moaned, and started sobbing again.
“What is it? Please, Richard, I want to help. What is it?”
He was controlling this. He realized. He was the one crying, the one hiding his face in his blankets, but the tears came so easily, and that was control. Her hand on his back, so easily.
“They hate me,” he’d whispered, as quietly as he could. “They all hate me.”
She leaned in closer, her hips against the back of his head, the hairs tingling at her touch.
“I’m here, Richard,” she’d said. “I’m here for you.”
Then he’d turned his head up to her, and knew how pitiful he looked by the total softening of her face, his life mirrored in her.
“I’m so sorry,” he’d croaked.
She’d opened her mouth, he could see tears building in her eyes, and this soft little gasp escaped her, as if her whole body had been squeezed, wrung out, and this little pant was all it could muster. Then her arms surged out, were wrapping round his head, pulling him to her chest, and her cheek was rubbing against his forehead.
He drifts, as she talks in the whispered American voice. He’s so tired, and the ache in his head keeps tugging.
“… so many things going for you,” she’s saying, he catches wisps of her words, as his eyes blur open and closed.
“… bad-looking, not at all, you could do so much with yourself,” she’s saying.
“I love you,” some one’s saying, over and over again. He feels her eyes fix on his, he knows it as her fingers slow in his hair, and he realizes it’s him. He’s never said that to any one before.
“I love you.”
“You don’t mean that, Richard,” she’s whispering down to him, her breath light on his burning cheeks. “You don’t.” He feels her hand, her cool fingers, leave his scalp.
“I do,” he mumbles, drifting, so happy. “I love you.”
Then he sleeps.
He wakes, and he knows she’s gone. Rubs his eyes, sore, surveys the fabric mess of his room. Pushes himself up, draws the curtains a crack and peers out into the light. There’s students lolling on picnic blankets below his window, their skin bright with the sun. There’s a stereo on, something by the Coors. He opens the window, feels the rush of fresh air into the stale room, the smell of cigarette smoke, the fizz of beer, even perfume.
They’ve brought out chairs and a television, set them on the grass. The girls are wearing bikini tops, the boys have their shirts off. Pale British skin. They’re watching a football match. They’re smiling and laughing and talking, they don’t care, they have no idea. He hates them all.
Pushes the window shut carefully, so they won’t hear him, and eases the curtains closed, banishes the light.
So much difference, he thinks, so easy for them.
He misses the headache. He misses her hand in his hair.
Looking around his room, the bare walls, tossed covers, torn poster, he feels his frustration. Feels it mounting within him, as he looks down at his pitiful state, all his things lolling pathetic on the grey thread-worn carpet, and he comes to another decision, and even as he makes it, he knows exactly what it means
“Fucking bitch,” he whispers, lips snarling back out of his control. “Fucking, fucking bitch!”
Then he picks up the bread knife, and he hurls it against the door. It thuds into his nightgown, tangles in a pocket, and pulls it from the hook to drop on the floor, leaving stark before his stinging eyes the blue Nightline plaque. He stares at it, fists clenching as the words blur and the colours run, until all he can see where it should read ‘the listening service’, is ‘we’re fucking liars’, and where it should say ‘every night, all night’, he sees only ‘as long as we can laugh at freaks.’
“Fucking bitch!” He whispers again, scared by the vehemence in his voice, his body trembling. Strides over to where the knife landed, throws the gown in the air behind him and seizes the black plastic handle. For a moment he stands calm, aware of his choices, and the consequences. Then he falls to hacking at the plaque, slamming the knife into the plastic and the wood, levering at the screws.
Blue chips spark from his blows, spatter against his face, but he doesn’t stop until, panting, the plaque comes loose, his fingers bruised and cut. He tries to snap it across his knee, but it only bends, no matter how hard he tries. He wants to scream, but doesn’t, he doesn’t want them to hear. Instead he slams the plaque into the metal waste-paper basket by the sink. The clang echoes out hollow, unsatisfying.
Then he turns, collapses exhausted on the bed, the knife still clenched in his white knuckled fist, and tries to cry again.
But he can’t.
There’s a knock at the door, and he freezes. His ears pick up and he waits.
The knock again, then the voice.
It’s Jim’s voice, on the other side.
“Hey Rich, you there?”
He says nothing. He barely breathes. He waits.
“Well,” says Jim, louder. “I guess you’re not in then.”
He watches as the door handle starts to move down. He panics, but daren’t move. It isn’t locked, it mustn’t be. She couldn’t lock it, without the key. He panics.
Then it stops moving.
“Oh well,” says Jim again, still loud. “Never mind.”
He waits, for the sound of the corridor door to slam shut, for Jim to leave. It does. Then he springs from the bed, darts to the door and twists the lock. Takes a breath.
Then Jim’s speaking again, suddenly, feels like it’s right in his head, in the room with him, and he staggers back and stumbles onto the bed.
“What are you doing, Rich?” he says, from the other side of the door, and Richard can’t believe it, feels trapped.
“I know you’re in there Rich. You just locked your door. What’s wrong? What’s all the noise for?”
He says nothing, holds his breath, hopes maybe it will go away.
“Why are you doing this? Rich? What are you getting out of this?”
He can’t say anything. He can’t let it be real.
“This is shitty, man. You still hung up over the card game? Get over it. Yeah, some of the guys are laughing about it, but you gotta deal with that. Shit, Rich, think about it! They all know you’re in here! You’re just making it worse. You think we couldn’t hear you smashing around inside? Peeking out your window like Norman Bates? Come on now, Rich.”
“Listen, I know you’re in there. What’s wrong with you? I know, yeah it can be tough. But this? This is just weird, man. I thought you were OK, little shy, but shit, what is all this? You’re hiding from me?”
“You don’t wanna come out and watch some soccer, then? I’ve got some beers, it’s cool. Come hang out.” Softer, reasonable. Jim really is a nice guy, he thinks. Maybe he should go. Maybe it will be alright. Then Jim speaks again.
“Forget it,” comes his voice, resigned. “Whatever. Your life, buddy.”
The sound of the corridor door creaking open, slamming closed.
He lies on his bed, covers his head with a pillow, and wishes he was somebody else
He’s holding the nightline plaque in his hands, has been for a long time, when the phone rings. It startles him. He isn’t sure if he wants to answer, and he counts the rings, but it doesn’t stop. 10 and still going.
He picks it up, holds it to his ear, mumbles something.
“Richard, it’s me,” says the phone. Marina’s voice. His mouth goes dry.
“Marina,” he manages.
“Yeah. I just wanted to call. To check. You know.”
“To check on me?”
“Check on the freak.”
“Please, Richard, don’t be like that. I don’t mean it like that.”
“You left,” he says. The headache is a migraine. The headache is a burden, now.
“I had classes, I couldn’t stay all day. Are you OK?”
“I’m alone again.”
“You left me alone.”
She takes a deep breath.
“I’ve got some numbers for you, Richard,” she says. “The counselling service. It’s free. Samaritans too.”
“What about your number?” he asks, knows he’s whining again.
“I don’t think I can help you any more. There’s qualified people, they’ve dealt with depression before, they can help you. I don’t think I can do anymore.”
“I’m holding the knife right now,” he says, although he isn’t.
“I don’t think I’m the person to help you,” she says quietly.
“I’m holding it against my wrists. I am going to kill myself.”
Another deep breath.
“No you’re not, Richard,” she sighs.
“What?” he asks, genuinely confused.
“Please, take the numbers. They can help you.”
“You don’t think I’m serious?” he asks, raising his voice.
“Shhh, calm down, please. I think you need help, Richard. You need help, but not from me.”
“You said you’d help me!” he wails, head pounding. “You promised, you promised you’d help me.”
“I know, but-” she begins.
“You promised, you came round, you promised you’d help!”
Her voice goes very quiet. “I don’t think I’m going to keep that promise, Richard. Please, take the numbers. Help yourself.”
“Why?” he asks, the headache spinning him to vertigo, like a bad hangover. “Why can’t you help me!”
“You know why,” she says, barely audible.
“Tell me,” he urges.
“You were touching me, Richard. Don’t you remember? You were moaning, you even,” she breaks off, he can hear her breathing fast and uneven, “you told me you loved me. You kept saying it.”
“I do!” he finds himself shrieking into the phone. “I do, I do!”
“No you don’t,” she says sharply, angry, and at that his eyes flick wide open, the sudden rage returns, the plaque stabbing anger fills him.
“You bitch!” he screams into the phone. “You lying bitch, you promised! You said you wouldn’t judge me. How can you do this? I trusted you! You’re on the phone and you say you’ll help people, you’ll help them get better, but what do you do? What do you do, you lie to them, and you tell them things that aren’t real, and you give them hope, just so you can take it away. I hate you! You’re a lying, dirty, whore!”
He realizes the connection is dead. She’s hung up.
“Whore,” he says again, then slams down the phone. Pinches the bridge of his nose tightly, then leans down and snatches up his coat, slings it over his shoulders, and strides to open the door. Before his fingers touch the metal he stops, turns round, goes back to the desk and picks up the knife.
Then he leaves the room, lets the door slam on the way out.
He’s in one of the computer labs, out back of the Faraday building. To his left there’s a great fat girl, dressed in tight Goth junk. To his right, a slim asian lad, pebble thick glasses hanging slack over the spotty bridge of his nose. Before him, the internet.
He’s surfing the University web-site, looking for a registry of students, a list of names. He scrolls down through the course lists, Accountancy to Zoology, sees lecturers names, set texts, but no students. On to the college pages, but no enrolment lists, just the names of exec committee members, bar managers, presidents. He spends hours combing through them, but can’t find her.
It’s getting dark outside. The other students, perhaps the ones that live off-campus, or have other things to do, start to leave. The fat girl and the asian lad even leave, eventually, hand in hand, and then there’s only him left. Staring at the harsh white backdrops, searching every page he can find, the sports clubs, societies, job links, voluntary organisations, history of the university, geography of the town, upcoming developments, sports facilities, even the Nightline page with it’s wittering of ‘scared? lonely? confused?’, but there’s no sign of her.
Finally, tucked away innocuously in a menu bar available on one of the American Studies pages, he finds a link to the SOCRATES exchange program. He connects, sees a group photograph taken in Alexandra square. Underneath, the text tells him these are the exchange students in from the States. His gaze flicks up excitedly, searches the rows of smiling students, blonde, brunette, redhead, but recognises nothing. Scrolls down, eyes wide with hope, then there it is. A list of names, left to right, back rows to front, and somewhere in the middle, Marina Curzon, the only Marina there.
Beneath that, a short piece saying all the students are bunched together in Bowland college because of the housing crisis, but soon they’d be spread equally round the campus.
Walking down the spine, the night wind whips at his clothes. He realizes, the same ones he wore yesterday, and all through the night. There’s damp patches, spilt tears or beer, he muses. People pass him in either direction, dressed up for the night. Thursday, probably going to the Sugarhouse. It’s rock night. He sees more goth types, passing him by.
Into Bowland porter’s lodge, he walks straight over to the desk. The Porter, a short stocky white haired old guy, is reclining in his easy chair, watching a fuzzy portable television on top of a grey metal cupboard. Behind him, just like he remembers seeing in Fylde college when he picked up his keys on the first day, the racks of spare keys, with names and photographs attatched.
He asks the porter what he’s watching, while he scans the names and photos. The porter says something back. He says something about it being a great show, and the porter says something back.
When asked if he’s going out tonight, he says sure, yeah, the Sugarhouse. The porter laughs, says he better get changed, his shirt is filthy. Richard looks down at himself, smiles foolishly, and agrees. Says that he’s probably going to need a laundry card. He’s got nothing else to wear. The porter grumbles, but gets up, waves him though the partition at the end of the desk. Bends over to a small safe at the bottom of the cupboard, his back to Richard, spinning the dials. Richard frantically scans the bottom rows of pictures, and as the porter opens the safe and pulls out the wodge of white and red cards, there she is. In the middle, room number 243b.
He coughs as loud as he dares, snatches the key from the hook. Raises the metal in his fist to his mouth, coughs some more into it. The porter gets up, says take it easy son. There’s all night yet. Proffers the card.
Reaching into his pocket, he drops the keys inside, pulls out his wallet, and pays the man.
On the spine, he’s smiling. He’s done it. He’s ready. Heads back to his room, careful to be quiet on the way in so Jim doesn’t hear. Sits on his bed, thrumming with anticipation, excitement for what’s to come, mind alive with the possibilities, what he could do with a key and a knife and Marina in bed asleep.
He waits for hours, fantasizing how he’ll make the dirty whore pay for lying, how he’d teach her a lesson, as doors slam in the corridor outside, voices come and go discussing plans for a bar crawl, and the hands of his travel clock slowly creep towards, then beyond, midnight.
Into her room, it was easy. Left his room at 2:15 precisely, the same time he’d called her the night before. Since then, he’d been watching her window, hidden in a clump of bushes on the perimeter road, invisible in the dark. All the lights had gone off, eventually. He’d walked straight up the stairs, into the flat, unlocked her door, and breezed right in.
In the dark, towards her bed, he’d stumbled on a plate, fell to the chair, and she’d woken up.
She’s asleep now. He hates himself, he knows that. The fantasies from hours before challenge him. Jim’s voice, letting him slip away, resigning him to nothingness. The rugby boy, the game of cards, his hot shameful tears.
Forget all that, a voice is telling him. Here she is. She’s waiting for you. Isn’t that a knife in your hand? You’ve got a dick, haven’t you? What are you afraid of? What are you waiting for?
The fantasies surge helter skelter before his eyes, rinsing over the darkness of her room, but they can’t block out the sound of her rhythmic breathing, in and out, over and over again, soothing him. They can’t block out the memory of her soft hands in his hair, her soft words in his ear, and the love he spoke that must have had something good in it, the words that must have stood for something.
You’re a coward, says the voice in his head. Everything you could want, right here, and what are you doing? She mocked us! She laughed at us! She lied to us! She deserves this! Do it!
The knife weighs heavy in his hands, the metal cold. He imagines holding it above her, watching the terror in her eyes, listening to her beg, but the image is hollow. Even of this, he is afraid. He knows it. She might laugh. She might mock him. She might send him away with insults. He knows he is not enough to face that down, even with the knife.
Weakling, says the voice in his head. Do something! Coward. Loser. She’s right there, do something. Do something!
Then it comes to him. The perfect way. She will not laugh. She will not mock him. She will only suffer, and it will be so easy. He will teach her to respect him. He will teach her to listen.
He rustles about in his jacket pocket for the piece of paper, a pen, then begins to write.
She wakes up slow, opens dull eyes to greet the dawn glowing through her thick velvet curtains. Another day. She blinks, stretches hard, yawns, and pushes the pig duvet from her body. The cool room air washes over her, and a drizzle of dream, of silent words in the dark, passes through her mind. She shakes her head, pulls on one of the pigs’ tails, lets it tug back into place, and smiles.
She gets up, walks over groggy to the light switch. Her foot nudges something and she nearly trips, leans against the wall. It is wet underfoot. There is a strange smell. She hits the light. The room goes white, sterilises, and she sees the flashes of red in her peripheral vision like a fist in the face. She recoils, staggers, slumps into her chair and for a second only stares.
Then she screams.
It is Richard. Throat pink and open. Red everywhere. Knife slack against his fingers, resting whitely on the carpet. There is a piece of paper crumpled with dried blood on his chest. It is a nightline flyer.
Scared? Confused? Lonely?
Need someone to talk to?
Nightline, the campus listening service.
Every night, all night, 10pm-8am
And at the bottom, scrawled in untidy ballpoint:
am i serious now?
There is knocking at her door. She is still screaming. She cannot tear her eyes away. The knocks turn into thuds until finally the door implodes inwards, one of her hall-mates boyfriends standing there in his briefs. He sees the body and screams too. Soon, everybody is screaming.
Behind her, the duvet is settling flatly on her bed as the warm air trickles slowly out. The pig’s tail recoils itself. A breeze through the open door blows the curtains wide, and the dawn light of a brand new day floods in.
You can see all MJG’s stories here:[album id=6 template=compact]