The man, indie-thin but sinewy with runners’ muscle, girl-lipped with poetic cheekbones and gothic skin, tuppeny-coloured hair slicked into an almost Danny Suko quiff, stood crooked before the Holiday Inn window, dense in chalky-black. The glow from the sign seeped into his temporary room, the colour of the insides of a fridge or a tub of margarine. An old Reebok backpack, neat as a cat, a nucleus on the white bedspread. His Converse, paired, waited by the ankles of the old desk. His usually busy, analysing eyes, blanked out on the cityscape. Still, bar the occasional whoosh of a taxi or car pressing up the A6. Dark, but for the red and amber of streetlamps and brake lights, the lit billboard on the opposite side of the street advertising drink and youth, beauty and popularity: Live a Little. An utter of a laugh. His voice, from what you could tell – low, warm. A voice that had, in the past, said to strangers, No probs. Don’t worry. I’ve got 20p if that helps? He took some breaths, as the therapist had taught him, so that you could see his shoulders rise and fall, rise and fall, up to his ears, hold, aaaaand – relax. His breath made a comfortable surfing sound, his body lengthening out to its full six-two. The room smelled of popcorn and old towels. He considered the almosty meaty-grease of his hair.
For the first time in twenty-five years, he felt like living. Because it was finally decided. Finally – peace. Finally.
Another light beat into the darkness. He looked to the source: Nina calling.
He did it on their twenty-fifth birthday.
Helium balloons flowered around Nina. She was spot-lit by friends leering in for smeared kisses and sweating hugs, arms boxy with presents or a spiky card. Chumbawumba thumped on the cheap stereo in her third floor leather-and-wood apartment that she was secretly proud of. Others were still living in post-uni house-shares. She’d moved on. Nina tugged at the hem, midway up her long thigh, of the stingy dress Alex had bought her. Checked the door and her phone for a face more familiar than her own.
She said things to people that day. Her mother’s punctual 9am birthday call: D’you know – can’t get hold of him at all. Have you heard anything? Her best friend’s recorded Whatsapp rendition of Happy Birthday: He’s not been on Facebook you know. It says 11 hours! What’s he like?! His best friend’s Facebook message which exclaimed, May as well send you one an all! Happy b’Day! Female version of my bezza!
People responded with things like:
He’s probably just got distracted with uni work. You know what he’s like.
Maybe he went on a bender. You know what he’s like.
There’s that anorexic one he’s been hooking up with – well, you know what that’s like.
it was true. When she and Alex first got together after a work’s party, Nina went off-grid. Something she knew he’d been hurt by, a jealousy that spiked into brief, but powerful dislike. Self-righteousness. She was allowed her own life. She’d thought Alex was why he’d not made it to many of their Sunday bacon brunches and hungover moaning-the-world sessions in the run-down art cafes they used to like.
But not this. Not: “Nina? Nina! It’s Edward! Edward? Yes. It’s loud there? Nina – have you seen the TV? Can you hear me?”
Her step-father’s dry voice made words that erased her childhood. That cut the other side of herself – the living, organic memory of her entire life, something that couldn’t be backed up or sent to iCloud – right out. Excised, like black in a bad tooth.