Happy Valentine’s Day!! Or, if you prefer, “Galentine’s Day!” So whether you are celebrating romance or friendship this February 14th, a treat for you: a story featuring both. The signature story from my award-winning short fiction anthology The Last Train Home & Other Stories. I hope you enjoy!
Hindsight proves that leaving the car at home was a good idea, as it meant that I could join you as you drowned your sorrows. Okay, it’s not exactly where I wanted to be on a Thursday night – that is, a pillow den in your living room – but a best friend must answer to the summons. It’s one of the perks of having a male best friend, actually. No snivelling. Minimum on the uncomfortable bitching. Just clean getting-trashed-out-of-our-minds. A bittersweet celebration of the untimely end to a promising relationship.
Yet after six hours I feel like I have Jack Daniels and coke leaking from every pore and the final train leaves in twenty minutes. You seem to have perked up (fourteen consecutive wins on Super Smash Brothers will do that to a person) so I make a break for my bag and jacket. But all of a sudden you face screws up and you start a rather misdirected rant concerning the failings of the female sex. And your eyes are all shiny and you’re waving the Nintendo controller around so pathetically – and I’ve never been able to just leave you to yourself. I drop my bag back down on the chair.
And I miss the last train home…
Rose cursed under her breath as the contents of the milk carton spattered across the tiled floor; hours of binge drinking had left her incapable of making a cup of tea. Ash’s raised voice continued to rant from the direction of the living room.
“-this time I’m serious, Rosie. We would have half decent kids and -“
Rose bent down to swab the floor with a damp and browning gingham tea towel, rolling her eyes. It was the same old story. For her own sake as well as his, she tuned him out as she cleaned.
“We were good in bed together!” Ash continued to develop his argument as Rose walked through the door balancing two mugs of tea. She smacked them down on the table.
“ASH! Is that never talking about it again!?” she chided lightly, sinking into the chair opposite him. Ash smiled thinly, eyes bleary.
“Sorry. I’m like, really, really drunk.”
“Like you were the night in question,” Rose couldn’t help but point out dryly, before sipping her tea. “As was I. Incredibly so. You could have been screwing a hole in the mattress and I wouldn’t have noticed.” Ash made a face as he reached for his cup, obviously too incapacitated to think of a suitable retort. “Anyway,” Rose deftly changed the subject, “I’d better go to bed.”
Ash’s face fell. “Bu-it’s only-it’s only – I mean, it’s not even one!”
“Yes, and I have work tomorrow. AND I have to stop home en route to change!”
Ash surveyed her appearance. “Why can’t you just wear that again?”
Rose screwed up her face. “Because I smell like a bus station. And besides,” she sniffed, “what about clean underwear?”
Ash’s face darkened. “Oh… she might have left some around…”
“Ash, I am not wearing some tramp’s thongs,” Rose said, matter-of-fact, as she downed the sugary remnants in her cup.
Ash’s face remained impassive. “I thought you said you quite liked her.”
Rose rolled her eyes. “Ash, she was a tramp. You always, always go out with tramps. That’s why they always, always cheat-” Rose ground to a halt; Ash was glaring at his mug like he wanted to burn the patterned enamel off with his eyes. She sighed. “Ash, sorry but…” Her voice trailed off again as Ash stood up.
“Yeah, so, anyway. Bed. You take mine. I’ll get the spare blankets out of the linen cupboard. And a towel. I assume you’ll want to shower?”
“You remember how to set my alarm clock, don’t you? What time will you need to get up?”
“I… I’ll need to get the nearest train to six, half six maybe…”
Rose watched Ash’s back through the open door as he hunted through the linen cupboard in the hall. You could see how tense he was, how set his shoulders were even through his clothes. She was tired, and could feel the beginning of her hangover start to gnaw at the back of her consciousness.
Ash flinched as he felt pressure on his shoulder blades – Rose placed a hand on each and rested her right cheek against the back of his neck, the end of his hairline tickling her nose.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, “It’s just that I think that nobody’s good enough for you. That’s all.”
Rose reached forwards and plucked a towel from Ash’s limp grasp. As she mounted the stairs she chanced a glimpse back down; Ash remained in position, furiously eyeing a folded tablecloth. She smiled and tutted maternally at his inebriated state as she ascended.
In the near decade it had been since her first tipple, Rose had come to realise that she would never be one of these people who fall into a blessed, somewhat comatosed state after a heavy night’s drinking. Although she sobered up fast, this also quickened up the onslaught of her hangover, often before she could fall asleep at all. Cue a sleepless night thrashing around and a total bitch to be around the following day.
Her mouth was almost unbearably dry but she couldn’t quite bring herself to get up for a glass of water. She also didn’t want to wake up Ash – no doubt blissful and comatose on the sofa en route to the kitchen. She licked her lips and immediately felt her face burn as the motion put her in mind of the last night she had spent in this bed. She remembered rolling her eyes back in her head so that she could see the distorted shape of Ash’s hair and the headboard from an angle and wondering, somewhere in her fuddled mind, how Ash could be so drunk yet kiss so well…
Afterwards, Ash had folded her up in his arms, contented smile on his face. But Rose was sobering up fast – horrified, disgusted, reviled – lying still as a corpse, watching Ash sleep in the streetlight from the chink in the curtains. And realising that nothing would ever be the same again. Rose turned briskly to her side, facing those same curtains. Tonight they had been closed carefully, and were only evident as a soft rectangle of grey in the blackness of the dark. She should have known that sleeping in this room would do nothing but plague her with memories – ones she didn’t want, that she never wanted in the first place. The things Ash had said – borne of drunken confusion -but said with such an honest face.
Rose didn’t jump when the door opened; she had almost been expecting it. Many times she had been startled awake by a half-asleep, half-drunken Ash, who had been to the toilet in the middle of the night and then forgot the sleeping arrangements. She began to turn around as he sat on the bed.
“Can’t sleep?” came his hushed voice. Rose blinked at him, pulling the covers a little higher.
“Oh,” she said, “you’re awake.”
“I can’t sleep,” came his reply, a silhouette in the light from the hallway.
“Shut that light off,” Rose squinted, nodding her head towards the bedroom door. Wordlessly, Ash stretched out a leg and kicked it shut. The room fell into dark and silence.
“Thinking about last time?” enquired Ash, as if he was asking about the weather. Rose made an exasperated noise and thumped her arms against the covers.
“Wow, that’s two mentions tonight of the Thing Never To Be Spoken Of. What time is it?” she neatly avoided the question. Ash peered behind her to the green digital display.
“Ten to five.”
“Ten to FIVE? Bloody hell, I might as well get up,” Rose growled, turning around to the clock.
“No, wait,” Ash murmured, crawling across the bed towards her. “I have a question.”
“Oh Ash,” Rose sighed, “let me guess. Is it – why do all girls hate me?”
“Ash, we’ve been through this!” she moaned. “It’s not your fault. It’s just… you’re looking for love when everyone else around you is looking for fun. You’re young. Give it time.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to know?” Ash accused, bitterly. The question hung in the air between them.
“Want to know what?” Rose answered carefully when the pause had become unbearable. “I was so drunk I can hardly remember.”
“How convenient,” Ash muttered darkly.
“Oh, and what’s that supposed to mean?” she countered in exasperation. The shape in the gloom that was Ash was silent, but she could easily picture his petulant expression.
“Nothing, it means nothing. Apparently.”
Ash exhaled slowly. Rose kept staring at the numbers straight ahead, luminous in the gloom, ignoring the slight tension and release of the bedsheets on her lower leg as Ash’s fingers played uneasily on the linen, short fingernails scratching at the fabric.
“I’m drunk,” Ash said finally.
Rose sighed. “Yes. Yes you are. Go… sleep it off or something.”
For a moment Rose thought she’d have to physically escort Ash back downstairs to the sofa, but after another silent hesitation, she felt his weight lift from the bed, and saw his shadow cast elongated on the wall as he opened the door into the hall. For a brief moment, the silhouette distorted as he turned his head to look back at her and she felt herself edge under the covers a little further at some explicable unease. The door clicked quietly shut and the adrenalin seeped out of her so that she felt flat to the pillow. She didn’t dare to pull herself up to gaze at the closed door. It was following him out that same door that had messed everything up in the first place…
Ash snorted as he dumped her unceremoniously onto his bed. Just as unceremonious, Rose burped. Ash snorted again. As the onslaught of giggles faded, Ash squeezed her fingers and sought out her gaze.
“You’re a star,” he said, beaming. “Thank you.” Her neck at an awkward angle on the pillow, Rose surveyed Ash. His eyes were a little bright, his cheeks a little flushed. He wasn’t sober. But he was happy – and for once, able to form a coherent sentence. Rose beamed back, lifting her hand and bringing both sets of their fingers to her mouth.
“S’ok,” she slurred, clumsily kissing Ash’s knuckles before letting her arm drop back down. It hadn’t hit the mattress before Ash’s lips were on hers, harder than he probably intended, pushing her neck straight again, bunching the pillow up between her crown and the headboard. With her free hand Rose gripped the sheets in shock. Ash broke for air and repositioned, planting his free hand on the side of her face to support his body.
Disorientated, Rose obeyed the panic, turning her face to the side and placing her hand on his chest, an instant barrier. Immediately she felt him freeze, her palm on his chest felt his breathing and pulse slow.
“I…I…” Rose was transfixed with the pulsing of Ash’s heart. It seemed to match her own, a sensation she could feel to the tip of every extremity. She brought her face back around. It was dark – she could barely see his features. “Rosie, I…” Ash seemed to have nothing else to say. Their still entwined fingers were sweaty. Ash pulled his hand free and got up, going straight through the door without a word. It clicked quietly shut. And for a moment it was as if nothing had happened.
Rose pulled herself up on her elbows and stared at the closed door. She could still hear his heavy breathing on the other side. The door rattled slightly as he leaned against it.
Unsteady on her feet, Rose padded to the door; smoothing back her hair with one hand, she reached for the handle with the other. The metal was cold to the touch against the flushed tips of her fingers…
Ash grimaced as he knocked over what remained of the bottle of Jack Daniels onto the carpet. Luckily that wasn’t much. He kicked at it half-heartedly for a moment, the moisture soaking up into his sock, before sinking back down into his makeshift bed on the couch. It was uncomfortably warm, sticky. The room smelt of sweat, alcohol and her perfume. Ash closed his eyes in annoyance as another fleeting memory surfaced, a memory of the night where he had run the tip of his nose along her collarbone and smelt all three scents combined in one.
I love you, he had said, holding her. Isn’t everything wonderful.
No, she had said. Holding the sheets around her. Horrified. Mortified. I won’t be a replacement for your sluts, she had snapped.
No, he had cried, as she sped around the room gathering discarded items of clothing, trying to conceal her body from him. Don’t you understand? They were the replacements. It was always, always you…
I love you, he had said, holding her. His eyes a little bright, his cheeks a little flushed. Giddy. Tipsy. Overflowing. A million thoughts crashed into her with the force of a truck. I’m late for work. I’ve just slept with my best friend. I could be pregnant. He’s seen me naked. He said he loves me.
She couldn’t get out of that house fast enough that dreadful morning, but the next time she’d seen him she took control, told him how big a mistake it all was, how they were never to mention it again, explained just how drunk he’d been. Made it into a joke. Ash had been quiet for a second, but he never broke eye-contact. Just like that night. His eyes bright, flushed cheeks. And suddenly Rose had felt like she was going to cry, that despite her best efforts something had been changed, broken, lost, now and forever.
Rose turned the shower off. The scene replayed over and over in her head as she got dressed. Ash’s expression as he sat there silently. As sincere and accepting as he ever was. She’d felt his heartbeat pressed up against her, steady and genuine. I love you. It was always, always you. Rose brushed her hair, standing in front of the mirror but not seeing her own reflection, and let her thoughts wander. She finally caught her own eyes in the mirror, and smoothed underneath them with her fingertips. From downstairs, the dim chime of six o’ clock was audible. Her train was in thirteen minutes.
Giving her appearance a final once-over, she was jolted out of her concentration at the creak which signified Ash was on the stairs. She stood as if set on pause, her hand still halfway from her face, irritated at the way her disobedient heart leapt inside her chest. She knew it was wrong, worse – impractical. She knew she would have to be a fool to risk this friendship; it was the most important thing in her life. But all the same, she couldn’t help but wonder, had never stopped wondering, not since that night, the echo of his I love you in her ears always…
And it’s amazing how something so complicated can suddenly seem so clear. I feel giddy from the rush of certainty. Tipsy. Overflowing. I throw open the bedroom door and the dawn light rushes in from the windows of the balcony to fill up the bedroom and exorcise all its demons.
You look up at me from the bottom of the stairs, bleary-eyed. Obviously you haven’t slept either. But that familiar flush on your cheeks is rising and your eyes are clearing. You hold out your hand for me like everything is normal and I laugh, I can’t help but laugh, because it is – it is normal.
We’re already sweaty as we touch, and the kissing is as clumsy and frantic and embarrassing as it was before, but it’s not about that, it’s not about anything like that anymore. My life clicks together, as simple as that; click!
And I miss the last train home.