It was not meant to happen like this. Check out is in less than two hours. The rake-thin man with a pot belly who owns the Bed and Breakfast only agrees to bring eggs to their room because they offer to pay him five pounds. It was not his habit to serve breakfast past ten in the morning, he tells them, he likes to run a tight establishment. The silhouette figures on the dated flock wallpaper snigger to one another at the word “establishment”.
They sit side by side on top of the bedcovers chipping away at the egg shells. The yolks are meant to be runny, David says. Poppy nods. A piece of shell lodges beneath his nail. He picks it out and squeezes his thumb, sucking at the bloody ooze. She slices his eggs for him, revealing solid grey rings around stale yellow discs. Plastic cups stained the colour of deep bruises loiter on the carpet by the bottom of the bed. Last night’s red wine sits uncorked on the bedside table. Poppy leans forward on her stomach reaching for the cups, and then pours the remainder of the wine into them. He sips reluctantly. The wine leaves a chalky coating on David’s teeth. When he thinks she isn’t looking, he quickly runs his tongue along them, catching against the one incisor that juts out from his otherwise straight set. He reminds himself to smile with his lips pressed shut.
Poppy is not hungry for eggs. She stands with her back to David but can see them both in the mirror of the Victorian-style dresser. Every now and then her blue eyes move away from her own reflection to David’s. He catches her looking at him and quickly looks away. She brushes her dyed black hair and turns to face him, wearing an oversized t-shirt, and for the first time he notices how narrow her shoulders are without the broad cut of her jacket. He feels ridiculously exposed; his large frame perches awkwardly on the edge of the bed and though sat down he contracts inwards in an attempt to occupy less space. She stands by the dresser in such stillness that for a moment David sees her as a doll in a toy house. The thought of her like this makes him shift his weight uncomfortably on the bed, which groans, giving voice to his unrest. The more he tries to ignore it, the louder the word becomes in his thoughts: virgin.
A striped emerald- and-black tie slides off the back of the chair. Poppy picks it up and drapes it back over the school blazer. Their eyes meet for a moment in the mirror. David reaches down for his cup and then remembers that it is empty. Inevitable, he thinks to himself. Poppy said that to him after their first kiss. He liked the sound of it at the time but was unclear what she meant by it.
The after school maths lessons were essential. This line was repeated by both, though thinking about it now David was not sure who suggested it first. Anyone peering into the classroom long past the end of school would have caught sight of a worn textbook sat redundant on the desk, its pages splayed open at a trigonometry chapter. The pages of the book were never turned. The school was mostly empty and the hum of a vacuum cleaner oscillated in the distance. Poppy sat on a desk, picking at the hard gum beneath and lifted her chin ever so slightly. She tasted like flat peppermint. David waited for the moment to sour as he knew it must. His eyes remained closed long after she pulled away and stayed so until he heard her voice from the doorway, in a much lower register than usual. She simply said, Inevitable, then got her bag and left.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to clear his mind, pushing away thoughts of the one at home waiting for him to the edges of the black space. He knows how he will find her when he gets back: windows closed, sat at the kitchen table, empty bottle of gin in the sink, baby-blue dressing gown lightly dusted with cigarette ash. She will be sat with her knees to her chest, rocking back on the wonky chair leg, its hollow tap on the tiles syncopating with the kitchen clock. Some days when he returns home David simply stands in the doorway staring at the back of her head, focusing for so long on the elastic band that holds her tangled hair in place that it begins to lose meaning. He didn’t have to see her face to know there would be a speck of vomit at the corner of her mouth.
The first time David mentioned her to Poppy was by accident. On the phone late one Sunday evening when they were making plans to be alone. Poppy had gone quiet for so long he had to check she was still on the line. Brighton, she said finally to break the silence. She told David of how she went once as a little girl for her birthday and sat on the pebble beach wondering where the sand was. He imagined how it would be for them. Poppy would be waiting for him on the beach facing the sea. The sky would be cloudy, her black hair lifting in a strong gust. He would watch her until she felt his eyes on her back and them turn to see him. In his mind, the beach is empty. The townspeople bustling along the promenade are as blurry and anonymous as he wishes for them to be. Yes, he said, Brighton, then.
He told her that they should get separate trains to avoid being seen together. At the station pharmacy David picked up a box of condoms and applied some aftershave from the tester stands. It was not the same on his skin as when he sniffed the bottle and he had to sniff the bottle again to look for evidence of the acerbic base notes within the musk that trickled down his neck. He picked up a box of chocolate truffles then noticing the price, placed them back on the shelf and walked out. The conspicuous scent of over-applied cologne followed David as he collected his ticket from the self-service machine. His phone vibrated in his pocket and he let it go to voicemail for the sixth time. He didn’t need to look at it to know that the word “home” was flashing on the screen. He stopped feeling guilty as soon as his phone stopped whirring.
The late-morning sun filters through the thin, drawn curtains. Tiny dust particles glitter in a slim shaft of light, dividing the room from a gap where the curtains don’t quite meet. Tinny chords play from Poppy’s phone. To set the scene, she says, make her feel more comfortable. It is not a song he recognises. He strains to listen to the lyrics, looking for clues within the melody, an audio roadmap of her body that might guide his way.
The bedsheets smell of bleach and feel thick to the touch as though covered in an invisible membrane. David spreads his palms flat against the sheets, repressing the shadow of couplings gone-by. They are no help to him. The conversation from the room above seeps through the ceiling. This couple talked late into the previous night when all Poppy did was sleep and David watched her lying there so still that he held his hand to her face until he could feel the warm zephyr of her breath.
The floor hums and the word “home” flashes on David’s phone. He mustn’t speak of home, those were the rules. Forbidden words stir beneath the eggs and wine sat in his stomach. David swallows these words down and let them rot his insides.
Poppy is beside him now, her warm thigh pressed against his. She runs her fingers through his hair towards the back of his neck. Don’t do that, he says a little too roughly, adding more softly, please don’t. Elsewhere in the building a door slams shut making the glass rattle in their window panes. The flimsy walls of the B&B like a house of cards, every heavy foot on the stair threatened to bring the whole thing toppling down upon them.
Poppy, are you sure?
She looks towards the door then back up at David. Squeezing his hand in reassurance she kisses him. Their second kiss. David is happy she isn’t crying this time.
All is still. The people in the room above have stopped talking. After so much build-up, the swiftness of it comes as a shock to David. The weak midday sun bleeds through the curtains dimming the room to near twilight. Poppy is standing by the dresser again. She is still wearing her shirt which clings to her back like a second skin. She quickly slips on her white cotton knickers, keeping her back to him, though he can still see her in the mirror. Her breath catches in her throat every few seconds.
Have I done something wrong, Poppy? Did I hurt you?
She searches for the flesh-coloured tights strewn on the floor like shed snakeskin, hastily pulls them on, swearing under her breath when they snag. She looks over to David’s undergarments, which are bunched up on the floor beside him. He dresses himself in his vest and boxer shorts beneath the bedcovers and then returns to the edge of the bed where he once more perches himself. When Poppy is distracted with the task of changing into her blouse he takes a look at himself in the dusty mirror tilted at an unflattering angle towards the ceiling. Pale skin stretches tightly over his lanky frame causing his bones to jut out sharply at his clavicle as well as his hips, where the skin has struggled to catch up with the rapid growth of his body. A small collection of pimples gather in an angry constellation along one cheek and his top lip is lightly shadowed with the promise of facial hair.
Poppy’s playlist returns to the opening track. David’s throat tightens as recognises what he privately calls “their song”. She is fully dressed now, her expression composed as she wipes away the smudged makeup that has settled into the fine lines beneath her bottom lashes. She rubs at her tired eyes then reapplies black lines along the rims of her eyelids. She seems out of reach, as though the room has suddenly expanded. David watches mutely as she brushes her hair, deftly twisting stray whites into a knot which she pins into place.
He runs his hand through his hair and lets it rest at the back of his head. We can try again, he says, we don’t check out for another hour. His voice inclines to shrill and his cheeks grow warm in frustration, making the constellation angrier. His uniform rests on the back of the chair, neatly folded, the emerald-and-black tie draped over the top. Poppy takes up the clothes and hands them to him. Once dressed he makes up the bed up, no longer able to tolerate the ruffled duvet that serves as a reminder of his failure. Though he tries hard to ignore it, the word repeats over and over in his mind: virgin.
She is fully dressed now in her familiar charcoal-grey suit. The wine begins to work through him, warming his veins. The numbness spreads within him slowly, until he feels complete detachment. David thinks of his mother home alone, gradually petrifying at the kitchen table and begins to understand. Poppy has been talking at him but he hasn’t heard a word of it. She is speaking quickly now, repeating over and over that she doesn’t know what to say. There is a knock at the door. The pot-bellied man reminds them they have less than an hour until check out. Inevitable, David thinks to himself. He doesn’t need her to say it.