I’ve always hated sleep. Don’t get me wrong, I know the value of it. I know that I need it. It’s just become more of a necessary medication: when I’m tired, I put my head on the pillow and try to swallow sleep like a shitty tasteless pill. Alison, on the other hand, is a remarkable sleeper: she doesn’t see comfort as part of the equation. She can be unconscious at will. I swear she’s fallen asleep against potted plants before. Sleep, for me, is more of an inconvenience. Why put my body on standby when there is work to be done? Christ, the worst part of my day is the night. I think this might go a little way to explaining why it is 4.30am and I have been up for a few days.
Alison is lumped in her favourite chair, the one with the tartan skirting that somehow smells of heather. I am at my desk, emails pinging like the Hadron Collider fires off protons. I hate to admit that they’ve built up considerably, but I am the Roman Goddess of Email Mastery – as quick as these sentences. One of the Classics lecturers is having a party: polite decline. A meeting with the Pro Vice Chancellor to discuss latest department publications: polite acceptance. A sob story from a Nigerian diplomat: polite send to spam. Done. In a few days, my email inbox will be cleaner and fresher than a hospital ward; a hospital ward run by my mother.
A text appears from James: Sophie, we need to talk.
I reply: James, why do people always say ‘we need to talk’ in lieu of actual talking. You could have written what you wanted to say in the same text box.
I put my phone on the table and make coffee. It’s watery and the milk forms tiny cotton beads on the surface. I drink it down immediately and gratefully. Alison makes coffee like you wouldn’t believe; like it’s been decanted from a sacred waterfall or something. I swear to God, she once made me a cup of coffee that tasted so perfect I sat her down and kissed her face a dozen times all over in some kind of benediction. Thank God for the creatures that make perfect caffeine systems: they will inherit the earth also. A text buzzes. My phone, against the perspex table, becomes a tiny nightclub where everyone inside is being glassed. Alison doesn’t even stir, the dark hoods of her eyes buried in her face – they are in for the long game.
I think for a moment to place a blanket over her, though that means getting a blanket from the airing cupboard. I don’t bother.
The text reads: this is one of those chats that has to be done in person. I’m awake. (no Alison) James.
I know you’re awake, James. It wouldn’t be possible for you to text me, idiot. Also, why do people feel the need to put their name after a text? We all have caller ID – God, I had caller ID in 1998. I berate him and tell him I’m coming over in the same text. Less than 100 characters. I’d say brevity is my middle name but Mama even kept that brief: I don’t have one. I barely have a surname. Just three letters: Sophie Oke. Oke as in the start of okay. I like that. You’ll never quite get my approval, world, no matter how hard you try.
I grab my keys and move towards Alison. I go over to kiss her head but since this smells quite strongly of nail varnish and red wine – her usual Friday treat is to match the colour of her wine to her toes – I simply find the bottle of nail varnish buried in the armchair and replace its cap. Care in the community and all that. I pick up a jacket and leave.
James’ place is above a betting shop in Putney, in one of those shit-attics (shattics?) that some men never grow out of wanting. He has dressed it mostly in ironic furniture: a bed that used to be a desk – that kind of thing. Wait, I’m not exactly painting him nice, so I will try to say one good thing about him … he does cook quite reasonable stews. I met James at a house party held by one of Alison’s wears-overalls-to-everything friends. He has money because he sells speed and on some weekends, he sells other people’s speed. I cross onto the King’s Road and get a cab. The cab driver is surprised I’m not drunk and talks about that. I don’t tip. I wish I was drunk, sir.
James is in a shimmery bathrobe. When he sits down on his desk-couch, it rides up and his ball-sack flops out like a practice soufflé. Total ball-sack. Not a bad description of him.
I tell him about the scrotum show and he makes a dance of being apologetic and covering it up. He hoists himself further into the sofa, exposing everything else too.
‘Well I could just sit here and talk to your genitals, if you want,’ I say. I haven’t removed my coat. I’m planning a swift exit. Swift everything. ‘They’d probably have more interesting things to say.’ James pulls a face. Not an appropriate face.
‘Sorry!’ he says. He puts on some filthy joggers, slapping the elastic to his skin after he’s put his balls in like he’s tucking them in for the night. I tell him this.
‘Well, they do need their beauty sleep,’ he says, tapping them faintly.
‘Beauty sleep,’ I say, sitting down on the edge of the table. ‘Who came up with that? When you’re asleep, you’re not thinking. Or seeing. You’re not caring or understanding. You’re not working. You’re aging and becoming less attractive. Sleep is selfish. Sleep is the ugliest thing we do.’
‘Charming … Soapy (don’t fucking call me that). Do you want coffee? Or do you prefer Soap … box?’ he says (wanker), jumping slightly to fit his jogging bottoms. I glance over at his percolator. It has an orange scum around the water jug and the filter hasn’t been changed in … a while.
‘Yeah, sure, whatever,’ I say. Kids, a caffeine addiction is a caffeine addiction: you don’t haggle. After a few minutes, he plonks down two ashy coffees in matching grey mugs. ‘So why am I here then?’
‘Why do you think?’
‘Ooh, a game,’ I say. ‘You know how much I love games.’
‘Well, you might get the clues. Her name rhymes with Palison,’ he says, smiling. I take quite a large echoey gulp of my coffee.
‘You shouldn’t set questions for quizzes. That was shit.’
‘Well, actually I—’
‘No, just don’t, James. Don’t be that guy.’ I wipe a little coffee dribble from my face. ‘What about Alison?’
‘That’s a very good question,’ he says softly.
‘Oh don’t be a penis, this isn’t a movie,’ I say, crossing my legs. Business stance. Sharon Stone stance. ‘What about her?’
‘She owes me a cheeky six hundred,’ he says, picking at – and sniffing – a lime-green stain on his joggers. ‘Oh and I bought her a pint last week – should I add that on?’
‘Hey, I don’t know, James. If you’re going to go full loan shark on us, why not add it on?’
‘Right. Six hundred and five pounds – and sixty pence (fucking London).’ He sniffs his hand again. ‘It was a Fosters Super Chilled.’
‘Why does she owe you? Why would she ever borrow money from you?’
‘Not really that sure,’ he says, itching the back of his head with a betting pencil; one of many tiny blue sticks that have been lifted from the shop below. The betting shop themselves nicked them from Argos.
‘Why did she come to you?’
‘Look, I don’t actually know that much, Sophie. I don’t like to get involved.’
‘You hand out money and you don’t know what it’s for?’
‘It’s the easiest way. Your big-browed little sex-nymph came in here asking for money. If I knew what for, then I’d have to tell you.’
‘James, you’re treading a curious path. Tell me what you know.’
‘Well, it was two weeks ago. She was crying. Maybe you guys had been fighting?’ I scanned my mind back but nothing popped up. More caffeine needed soon.
‘Good and likely deduction,’ I say. ‘I need a Red Bull, can you grab me one?’
James pouts. ‘Your manners aren’t that hot, Soapdish,’ he says, crossing to the fridge. ‘Your hands are shaking pretty bad – are you sure you want this?’ I mutter some shit about him not being my dad (not every word is a winner) and he continues. ‘Whatever. Anyway, she kept saying something like she has no idea, she has no idea so I just figured I’d ask how much until she answered me.’
‘Excellent,’ I say. ‘So … you know absolutely fucking nothing at all?’ He shakes his head and hands me the Red Bull upside-down. For real upside-fucking-down (dickhead). I let the can linger in mid-air for a while so we can both acknowledge how preposterous it is to hand someone a beverage upside down.
‘Well, thanks a bundle,’ I say, getting up to leave. I need a good end line: something decent to leave on. ‘The money will be in your account tomorrow,’ I say from the door. I go out – and sighing – return with ‘Bitch.’
I open the Red Bull over most of my bag. There are no cabs, so I move on up Putney High Street for a bus. It is 5.48am. I should be working. I find a café further up the street that looks like it’s had the bailiffs in. It has only three tables, about five chairs and a tiny fluorescent star on the till that says NO CARD PAYINGS. The café itself doesn’t have a name … I think you’re supposed to guess it. The white-haired owner is smoking inside. I order coffee and it comes from the back kitchen, which could be the kitchen of the house it is attached to. When I ask for milk, he sighs as if I’ve asked him to move his car (dick). Alison would have made this right. God, was it the coffee I married her for? No, it has to be her nose. An awkward nose, tilting towards the left side of her face like a ship run aground. She spends hours trying to make it up with base and powder so it looks smaller. It doesn’t, of course, and any time I say: ‘Oh, my bumbley bumblebee, no, I love your nose, it’s the best,’ that seems to make it worse for her. So I’ve stopped saying it, which sort of made it worse for me. I do like it though; I like the shape, the curve of it. Sometimes when she’s sleeping and I’m obviously not, I draw a line down the centre of it with my finger.
I saw her nose first in the Guardia bar in Exeter. She was a barista there. I don’t remember being served directly by her, but I remember her swearing at the milk she’d just steamed. She has this large tattoo of a giraffe along her back: and when she turned around I saw its bulby head peep out from the top of her shirt. That + the nose + the coffee = my idea of a wife, so I had to talk to her. Yes, she was one of those manic pixie dream girls – straight off the bat, but let me pop a wee lampshade on that for you: I don’t believe in shitting on cliché. Life is exactly a reoccurrence of the events you’ve already endured – no point trying to stray from that fact. She was one of those girls. You know the kind? The ones who start to scowl when you say the phrase oh I’ve never heard of that band. Wait, I’m doing her a bit of a disservice. Not over the top kooky. I mean – we got through conversations without anyone bringing up the health benefits of granola. She’s almost exactly the same now. What does six years do to a personality anyway? She still dances the twist in the kitchen to every song. (Once to an entire Iron Maiden album.) She still picks her nose, examines the residue on her finger and then sends it all back where it came from like she’s disturbed some ancient remains. She even has the same laugh. The same laugh for six years. A long guttural laugh pressed through her teeth. For six years. The only problem with time is curiosity runs out and you’re left with the slow steady measuring of time. The first thing people ask of couples is ‘How long have you been together?’ not ‘What the fuck is keeping you in this?’
See, there is nothing I don’t know about Alison.
I stay in the café until 8am: three bad-tempered coffee orders and one bad-tempered bit of toast. Back at the flat, she’s still in her armchair, hair flipped forward like a veil. I could pick her up and place her in bed, but she’s heavy and actually – I don’t think I’m strong enough. But I think about it. Half the battle. I grab an energy drink from the fridge and head to the laptop. An email from a colleague: I’m worried about your project. polite get to fuck. I finish the drink and crush the can for no reason that becomes apparent. I go up to Alison and suddenly lift her like a flour sack – knees bent, arms praying. I get as far as our bedroom before I drop her into the chest of drawers. She wakes immediately – swearing before her eyes have opened. Her head is bleeding from somewhere – you can tell by the carpet – but who could ever tell from underneath that hair? She kicks at me and asks me if I’m drunk. Miss, I wish I were drunk. So I respond by tousling her hair. (She smells somewhat of sweat and batteries.) She tells me to fuck off and goes in the kitchen to sort herself out.
‘I’ve been thinking about us!’ I announce for some reason.
‘Go fuck yourself!’ she says almost immediately. ‘I’ve got to be at work in three hours!’
I laugh at this, again for some reason. No, wait, there’s a reason.
‘When did you get a job?’ I yell. I push my toe in the carpet where the blood is. It is quite moist. I have no idea how to clean it up so I just keep attacking it with my toe. Alison returns with her hair scraped into a scrunchy, a dishtowel bandana-ed across her forehead.
‘Don’t be like this, Sophie, please,’ she says. ‘I don’t have time for it.’
‘I’m serious,’ I say. ‘When did you get a job?’ Alison looks at me like I’m the one who’s hit their head.
‘Sophie,’ she says, fiddling with the alarm clock. ‘Please go to sleep.’
I move back into the living room and check my emails. From the head of department: please attend for a meeting asap. polite decline. From his assistant: you will be required to clean out any belongings you have left behind. polite decline. From a colleague: are you coming back? we’re all worried about you. polite decline. I get to the kettle and make a coffee. It’s almost white and the top is glazed like an ice rink. I stir more coffee granules in and they cling to the top, huddling amongst themselves. I drink it almost all in one go. I make another and return to my laptop, using a pile of bills as a coaster. It tips as soon as I’ve put it down. Coffee floods through my laptop, the little granules rafting against the screen and clogging in the arrow keys. I sip from the keyboard: the space bar clacking as I tongue it. I go back to the kettle and start another cup. While the kettle boils, I check my emails.
Fuck, I have just got to get through these emails.