Jenny, yeah, she was pretty. One night in the midst of a break with a girl I’d been fooling about with1 we ended up drinking a little too much and she said I could sleep in her bed, no funny business we both agreed, but I let her know that I’d probably get a hard-on if we cuddled before dropping off. I was right. She didn’t mind, just laughed and said it was nothing. Anyway, the next morning she woke me up with coffee and rubbed the bits of sleep from my eyes and I guess, well, it felt pretty good. The frustrating thing about our night together was that, afterwards, whenever we’d hug hello or goodbye my dick would plunge forward against my jeans and I’m almost certain she felt it time and time again pressing against the soft of her belly.
I’ll introduce you to my bunch. There’s Joel. It’s hard not to mention the two of us in the same breath as we really were a pair: guitarists; singers; scribblers of the odd Haiku. He claimed that unless your fingers dripped with blood after strumming the chords to a song you were mistreating the guitar and, with any sense, you’d retreat to a coastal village somewhere up north and lead a quiet life listening to elevator music and the noise of a dull woman. We’d be the first to meet up on an evening, make our way to the nearby off-licence2, grab two or three bottles of red and a litre of gin, tobacco if we were short and then head back to the flat, his flat to be precise, but it became ours after a while.
Then there’s Eve. Opinionated, yes, but not in a full-throated in your face kind of way. Actually, come to think of it, her silence and the movement of her eyes let the rest of us know how she felt. She’d keep Joel and I in line and wouldn’t allow the two of us to hijack the night with an endless array of folk songs from the sixties. Sure, she’d applaud and appear almost as enthused as Jenny at the end of a rendition, but as we hit the early hours it became obvious, to me at least, that she’d had quite enough of staring at the two of us with gawping eyes. It was clear she’d rather settle down to a few final cigarettes with only the sound of the passing traffic filtering into the room, before pulling out a mattress. Her voice wasn’t half bad either. She didn’t need guitar backing or foot tapping to stay in tune. Joel and I used to ask her to harmonise with us. Say, if we were learning a bootleg Dylan track with a fragile female part floating in the upper reaches of the song. “Be our Joan Baez, be our diamonds and rust”, we’d whine and repeat, but she refused over and over until, after a while, we stopped asking. It was only in the last seconds before we’d fall asleep that I’d hear her sing; a melodic whisper, a tender lullaby, ushering me to rest.
Eve couldn’t make it to Joel’s one evening. It was sometime in late October, I think. She didn’t provide much of an excuse and looking back I guess she didn’t need to, but we all concurred at the time that she’d snubbed us for a better offer. Half smiling-half seriously. Yet none of us could think or even imagine what else she might be doing, especially on a Friday. That may sound petty but it was a tradition of ours, and it doesn’t take a man in tartan embroidery to know when one is broken.3
Joel dropped me a text to ask whether I could pick up the booze and tobacco as he was cooking up a treat and had to remain by the stove. So I did, the same amount as ever in spite of Eve’s absence, and made my way back to the flat. As I drew closer, I could hear his guitar through the open window, its strings slightly out of tune, and the faint sound of a girl’s voice struggling to rise above the fierce strumming pattern. I hit the buzzer and waited a few seconds before he let me in. The wallpaper lining the staircase had peeled away and slight stains of blood were resting in the crevices of the door frame.4I stepped inside and the smell of a breakfast on the verge of burning hit my nostrils5followed by that submissive aren’t you wonderful sort of laugh I knew only too well, Jenny’s. She came to hang her arms around my neck and kiss my cheek but I pulled away quickly, saying that I’d listened to her voice from outside and liked its gentle, fragile tone. I think she smiled before stepping into the bathroom.
I rolled a cigarette in the candlelit kitchen6 and drew a deep breath out of it before Joel looked over his shoulder and said something along the lines of ‘sorry mate, flat inspection tomorrow. You’ll have to step outside this evening.’ We held each other’s gaze for a moment but the mood of his face didn’t change. I stubbed it in the closest mug I could find7 and wandered into the living room to find a guitar or an old notebook.
I could hear Jenny in the bathroom as I walked by. She was humming. I didn’t recognise the tune at first so I stood outside with my ear pressed against the wooden surface, trying to follow the sound leaving her lips. Then I realised, from the leaping octaves and the way her throat struggled to hold the high notes and its discordant key changes that it was Joel’s song. Written a few weeks back, when the two of us stayed up to see the shimmers of dawn and I watched him create something from nothing. The melody was soon replaced by the sound of trickling piss, gently lapping beneath her legs. I listened until she got up and the spray of the tap was all I could hear. I thought of our trip to Bournemouth beach a few months back.
Eve’s Mum lived down there and invited the lot of us to visit for the weekend. She had a lovely house and a quaint garden dotted with gnomes that Eve painted as a girl. And up a few cobbled stairs, I remember, at the back of the garden, a wooden swing slowly rocked back and forth in the soft breeze. You had to look hard into the shadows to make out its shape, as thick, unpruned ivy leaves covered the frame.
After we unpacked, Eve’s mum left for a vigil mass. Joel giggled when she invited us to join, not realising her offer was genuine and tried to apologise as she shut the front door. Eve looked away, then wandered upstairs for a while.
“Maybe apologise to Eve?” I said.
“I was pretty sure she was kidding,” he said, after a short silence.
“I know mate. Or you could leave her mum a note to read when she comes back from Church?”
“That’s not a bad shout actually. Something a little soppy and apologetic?”
“Or write her a song?” Jenny suggested.
Eve came down the stairs clutching a glass jar. She put it on the living room table and sat beside Joel.
“Eve, I really didn’t mean to-”
“I don’t suppose you know what this is?” She said, bringing the jar close to her chest. We remained quiet. “You remember that weekend we spent in the north of France last year?” We nodded. “And our cycle ride back to the campsite after dinner in that village?”
“So fucking frightening”, Jenny said, squeezing onto the sofa, in between Eve and Joel, “we were lucky that night.”
Jenny was right, it was terrifying. Still makes me jolt when I think of it. We’d finished eating in an empty restaurant, waiting for the sun to be replaced by the moon. But it was a moonless sky that night, so we unlocked the bikes and began cycling back through the dark. Things were okay for a while, for the first couple of miles I suppose; the odd car drove by but nothing to fret about. Yet within a few minutes, more vehicles and what felt like a convoy of lorries sped past, pushing us further and further to the side of the narrow road. You could hear the girls gasping, swearing, almost crying when a truck drove by and missed our tyres by an inch or two: headlights briefly illuminating our bodies before hurtling off into the distance; a cacophony of horns tearing through the night air. Joel and I tried to remain calm, steady, before we pulled over into a muddy ditch.
Eve sat up and placed the jar back onto the table. “That’s when we huddled together and the boys promised they’d get us home safely.”
“And then we decided to push our bikes all the way back, through the wet grass.” Jenny said. The room fell silent.
“But what’s in the jar?”, I asked.
Eve unscrewed the lid and poured out a heap of dirt. “I collected a handful of earth when we left the campsite.” She paused. “So we’d always remember.”
On the Sunday we went to the beach. Joel was spouting some nonsense on the way, claiming that whenever he saw the sea he had no choice but to tear his clothes off and run into the water. And so he did, to the yelping laughter of both girls. He appeared, disappeared, leaping in and out of the shallows. Jenny fumbled for a camera in her bag and then waded into ocean up to her knees, snapping away, securing his moment for the car journey home. Joel took to handstands; his feet remaining together, suspended in the air for a few seconds before he lost his balance and his legs separated, symmetrically, and broke the surface of the water.
He swam towards Jenny. She stood still, trying to capture the exact moment he arose and droplets of the sea darted from his body. He ducked under the almost crashing waves and then jumped up, a few feet away from her. I saw a look of happy fear dart across her face. Then he embraced her, leant his weight against her side, and they both fell beneath the water. Except her arm, I remember, which refused to sink, holding the camera aloft, above their invisible limbs.
Eve stepped away from me and looked up at the cliff tops, muttered something about the squawking gulls overhead and wondered back towards the car park. I watched as she became less and less distinct, meandering up the beach. She perched on the summit of a sand-dune, her face indistinguishable, and seemed to gaze in our direction. Or perhaps she looked beyond the three of us and into horizon.
Joel stumbled back to the shore on the white froth of a wave, his boxer shorts clinging to his legs, and let out a high pitched cry each time a rugged, sharp pebble caught the inside of his toe. Jenny waited awhile in the shallows, her face beneath the water level, letting the salt keep her afloat; briefly a corpse swept in by the currents, slowly coming to rest on the beach.
I stood looking at him as he came closer and then unbuckled my belt to piss. ‘No, wait’, he called, kicking loose a stray piece of seaweed from his legs, ‘Let me join you.’ So there we were, standing side by side gazing out at the ocean. And just as we were finishing, Jenny ran out of the water and said ‘Wait, wait for me.’ Her hair flew from one shoulder to the other and I could briefly see the outline of a breast, gently pushing against her wet blouse. She pulled her knickers to knee level, crouched a little, and began pissing, with Joel and I on either side of her, the three of us darkening the sand beneath.
So, I probably need to say a little more about Jenny here, what actually passed between us the night I slept in her bed. Well, the following morning and after a few minutes of sipping the coffee she brought me and questioning the contents of her bookshelf, I pulled on my jeans and left her place. I headed straight to my regular café and sat out on the terrace, watching the high-street slowly fill up with bodies, ordered a few pancakes with bacon on the side and called Hannah8 to let her know that things were finished between us, before reflecting on the night.
As I said earlier, we’d cuddled for a while after Jenny switched the bedside lamp off and then it all went very quiet. The sort of quiet when your breath, no matter how softly you try to exhale, leaves your mouth in long heavy stutters. And on top of that, the kebab I’d eaten a few hours back still lingered on my tongue, mixed with the smell of whiskey, drifting from my lips onto the back of Jenny’s neck. I could’ve turned away and pressed my back against hers, but I didn’t. How could I surrender this moment for the sake of bad breath? A few minutes passed without any words. Her ribs began to swell in perfect, even patterns which led me to think that she’d fallen asleep, and so easily. Whilst I remained alert, my hard-on resting lightly against her pyjamas, utterly awake. Her breathing felt too composed, I remember, too steady and consistent. Exactly three seconds of stillness before my hand, loosely touching the bottom of her throat, felt a new grasp of air. Is this how she rests? Fluid and calm and in lovely motion? I began to fumble, to subtly move my shoulders and stretch out my knees. Nothing that could awake someone who was sleeping, no, but enough to let her know, if this was all an act or performance, that I was still there, beside her, waiting.9
Joel entered the living room with plates overflowing with beans that slid onto his palm. Jenny followed behind, a few sauces in one hand and a topped up glass of gin in the other. Strands of her unbrushed dark hair stood at uneven angles. The sort of broken down beauty that Leonard Cohen goes on about in his songs. She had clusters of light brown freckles spread across her shoulders, yet her face was snow clear. We ate our breakfast quietly.
Everything felt pretty settled, topping up my glass of red after each gulp and tucking into the oily grub. We finished eating and pushed our plates towards the middle of the table. I began rolling another cigarette and looked up at Joel, inviting him downstairs to join me with a glance. ‘Sorry pal’, he said, ‘lost the taste for it recently. I’ll give this one a miss.’ I got up without replying, unlatched the door, and made my way down the staircase. I’d never known Joel to refuse a cigarette.
The street lamps were casting a shimmer of gold onto the puddles resting alongside the curb. A local French restaurant looked out onto a roundabout and further still, up the first summit of a hill which led the way to our University. The restaurant was bustling. I saw glowing, fading tips of ash from across the road signalling fellow smokers stepping outside in a retreat from table conversation. An unspoken understanding, I thought, as someone turned his head towards me and seemed to smile, though it was hard to tell through the light mist.
I took a final drag of the cigarette but its petered out glow left my mouth stale and empty. I flicked it away and hit the buzzer. Nothing. No response. I tried again. Still nothing. Stepping back, I checked to see if I’d briefly forgotten his flat number. Of course not. I counted the floors of his apartment building and saw the flickering living room light on the third floor and the window slightly open. So I pressed my finger once more against the button, this time holding it there for nearly half a minute.10
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Douglas Gibson studied English Literature for his undergraduate degree at Royal Holloway, University of London and was a student on the Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh. For the past year he has been compiling a collection of short stories whilst also working on a novella.
1. This girl was called Hannah, if you’re interested.↩
2. Once I’d seen the proprietor tied to a chair with masking tape covering his mouth, the shelves all empty. I sat by his side until the police arrived. Good decision. My wine was free for a long time. New owners now.↩
3. First image that sprang to mind. ↩
4. Eve’s blood. She’s alive and well.↩
5. Another tradition: The evening breakfast. ↩
6. Yes, candlelit. The kitchen lights hadn’t worked for god knows how long and we’d laugh at what probably lay beneath the piles of unwashed dishes.↩
7. Almost anything served as an ashtray.↩
8. Remember Hannah?↩
9. And yet, you’d know by now if anything further had taken place. If she’d rotated to face me and rested her lips upon mine.↩
10. Joel leans across the table seconds after I’ve left the room. He places a single kiss between Jenny’s cheek and mouth, the moisture of his lips almost visible on her skin as he pulls away and looks at her. They wait. She looks back, and then half rises out of her chair to find his lips. My glass is knocked onto its side by her moving waist, sending trickles of wine across the table. He pulls her away and onto the couch, slipping a hand into her bra. He feels the soft flesh of her breasts followed by an erect nipple. She slides her palm across his jeans. His hand falls fast, past her ribs, and touches the rim of her knickers.↩