Their fight will begin after dinner, once the plates are in the dishwasher, the surfaces wiped. This is unavoidable. Desperate to stall—her heating works, his flatmates don’t—he potters about in her kitchen, musing aloud on his cooking technique, the need for sugar and salt, and is just remarking upon how burnt onions leave their taste in the air—if a taste can be in the air—when it lands on the roof with a wall-shaking thwop.
He stops, looks up to the corner. A new crack has appeared on the paintwork, thin as a pencilled line. The things seem to be coming more often now, despite the official figures, and her flat is on the top floor—but a crack in the plaster doesn’t mean the bricks are failing. ‘These blocks are made to last, you know.’ A pan scraped, his teacup rinsed. ‘Much better than the flimsy new-builds.’
She comes in behind him, dumps their plates. Says nothing.
‘I was thinking of buying myself, once this is all over.’
Another rumble across the roof, prompting a shiver from the wall, but no response from her.
‘Perhaps by the canal.’ Spoon, forks, knives away, their arrangement backwards to his drawer at home. ‘Vijay says if it’s proved they’re attracted to water, all his clients will leave. I could end up with a penthouse.’ He smiles, inviting her into this obvious fantasy. She knows about his credit cards, the consolidation loan.
‘You told me that already.’
The seconds stretch out, and he realises that she doesn’t intend to speak again—not unprompted, anyway—and searches his mind for a new topic, one that will lead them away from this conversational quagmire, but draws a blank.
‘Would you like a hot chocolate?’
She makes a face. ‘God, no. I’m fine with the wine.’
‘Okay.’ He reaches for the kettle anyway, because she’s bound to change her mind if she sees him making one.
‘Actually, there’s not much milk left now. I’ll need it in the morning.’ She crouches, head hidden in one of the cupboards as she matches plastic boxes to their lids, so he can afford to send a scowl her way, double-affronted by the suggestion that he’d wasted her supplies by helping himself to two teas while she showered, plus the implication that she solely deserves whatever is left, leaving him no option but to have black coffee before work, which she knows gives him the shits.
He drops his hand, frowns again at her back. The walls shake once more, misting the air between them with plaster dust, and it occurs to him that this sort of conflict might work as foreplay for some couples, but that doesn’t work for him: he’s never been attracted to the kind of woman who relished misery, preferring a sense of emotional alignment—in bed and out—and had honestly thought that she was the same. And yet earlier, when he’d talked about wanting to strangle his landlord, whose coughing bike had woken him again at six, her reply had been a murmured, ‘but then you’d go to prison’, and he’d felt flattened by this, suspecting that, by deliberately failing to recognise a joke, she was making a statement along the lines of I misunderstood you because you are too tiresome to pay proper attention to, but you are also foolish, so I must point out the obvious flaws in your thinking.
He frowns over the sink, rinsing away the bubbles. She slams the cupboard door. Through the window he sees the darkening sky, those thick purple clouds from the east come to push the sunset away. He draws the black-out blinds, then the curtains, and—once firm in the knowledge that no slice of light can escape—touches the base of the lamp.
‘Did you check the curtains?’ Even as she speaks, she’s examining his handiwork. Once, just once, he’d left a gap, and this is the result. He chooses not to reply, but the voice inside his head is strident: everyone makes mistakes, even you, darling and then his stomach squeezes—oh no—because he has said the words out loud. Not only that, but they’d emerged in that half-vocalised mutter that obliges the listener to choose between offering no response, a position of silence that either stems from absolute power—I magnanimously disregard—or total defeat—I must not engage for my own safety—or, if the type to challenge, will trigger a sharp what? or the so-much-worse I’m sorry?, which every schoolchild knows is not an apology, oh no, but an order to stop, think, rephrase or back down, because shit’s about to get real.
So now he’s caught, waiting for her challenge, the demand to repeat what he thought was important enough to say, but not important enough to say properly, maybe feigning interest in his thought process as she asks him to unpack the psychic balancing act between what is worth saying aloud and what he wants to be heard. She will put her head to one side like a curious bird, an affectation of interest which is actually a sign of imminent predation, for hasn’t he just proved himself a scuttling bug, to be skewered on the beak of her correctly clear communication?
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing,’ he says brightly. ‘Just chatting to myself.’
‘Hmm.’ The tone of this hmm is suspicious yet weary. He keeps his head down, helping her adjust the curtain’s folds, reseal the velcro, and for a moment it is quiet between them, and he thinks that maybe they can start the evening again with a friendliness that might lead to the reset buttons of orgasm and sleep, when she says, ‘Did you make any noise on your way here?’
Make any noise? She is being ridiculous, and so he tries to illustrate this. ‘Like what, exactly? Letting off fireworks? Banging a pot with a spoon?’
‘Don’t be dense.’
‘So, tell me what you mean.’
‘I mean that you don’t seem to be taking this seriously.’
‘By not doing what you are supposed to do. The curtain…’
That fucking curtain. Was she ever going to let it go? ‘I said I was sorry.’
‘But it’s not only that. You don’t listen.’
‘I do.’ He stares at her, to prove that he is doing just that, right now.
‘No, you don’t. And I think you deliberately refuse to listen to me or anyone else, because’ —and here she takes a breath, as if deciding whether she wants to actually say the words in her head— ‘you’re a selfish prick who does whatever he wants.’
She’s never called him a prick before, and he feels the word trying to pierce his sense of himself, forcing him to view their conversation from an external viewpoint. Whose side would an observer take, if someone were peeking through the ceiling cracks? His, surely. He hadn’t sworn at her.
‘Is it?’ Using her wrist, she pushes back the strands of hair that have fallen into her eyes. ‘You don’t think you’re doing stuff to attract them? Playing music?’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Singing?’
Oh shit. ‘There is no evidence that—’
‘Yes, there is.’ Face purpling, she hisses her words. ‘The party on that balcony. That man with the phone.’
‘That’s not evidence.’ He turns to busy himself with the table, brushing loose grains of salt into the carpet. ‘Look, I get you’re upset, but I don’t feel like it’s my fault you swallow every crazy theory out there.’
She pauses, processing this, and he can tell the exact moment she allows herself to tip over into anger, because she gets so very still everywhere except her eyes, which, oddly enough, call to mind the crackle of burning twigs.
‘So, just to be clear,’ she says, ‘my complaints, my concerns, all the stuff we’ve been talking about these last three weeks, are down to a failure in my critical faculties?’
Oh shit, he thinks again. Out loud: ‘I never said that.’
She touches the tabletop, touches her glass, and when she speaks it’s with the air and intonation of someone offering him a coffee. ‘You think I’m stupid?’
‘I certainly never said that.’
They glare at each other, and for a second he feels them teetering on the edge of a different kind of fight—one that would break open this argument’s chrysalis to have it emerge new, unrecognisable—when another of the things lands on the building with a great thud and starts rolling around on the roof.
It must be a big one, and yet the clatter of tiles shifting under its rubbery skin is not the worst sound he can hear, oh no, for that is the flobble or blobble it makes as it moves, a glooping sound that brings to mind the water balloons of his childhood, only deeper, like they were filled not with water from the tap, but with paint or unrefined oil, and not like that anyway, but quite different, and yet this is the only way he can make sense of what he is hearing. He hears other sounds too, as they roll—an excited guinea-pig’s whoops and chuckles, a washing machine with an unbalanced load, rocking and banging as it spins.
They both stare up at the ceiling.
‘Will it hold?’ she says.
‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘Vijay told me that these post-war builds were made with proper materials. Not like Bristol.’
She closes her eyes, and he regrets bringing up those images.
Another thud. More rolling, bubbling sounds, louder now. It must be overhead, squidging itself as it moves around, the part of it that touches the slate slightly flattened, as though it has a slow puncture.
The roof seems to be taking the weight. ‘Soon be gone,’ he murmurs.
‘You don’t know that.’
‘There’s no reason for it to hang around. Someone will drive past soon, and it will bounce off after the headlights.’
She throws him a look of disgust. ‘And what about the people in the car?’
He could reply that these imaginary citizens would be fine as soon as they hit ten miles an hour, but she knows that, so instead he takes her hand, the fingers cold and stiff, and kneads and warms them with his own until she draws away.
‘Just go,’ she whispers. He’s not sure if she is addressing him or the grey intruder on the roof. ‘I can’t take any more.’
He opens his mouth to rebut this, then pauses. How would he be able to tell whether she was telling the truth, or merely being theatrical? Maybe she
take more, but he doesn’t want to be the one to test the weight of her emotional ceiling. Deciding that she needs a moment, he picks up their wine glasses and uses his elbow to switch on the kitchen light, planning a splash more for each, and is just deciding if maybe, as he hands her the glass, he should touch the top of her head in a tender cease-fire, when the window behind him explodes inwards, showering the floor with jagged shards of glass.
They both leap, her forwards, him back, and so come to rest side-by-side, as the thing bulbs its way inside the room. ‘Get the fuck out,’ she screams, catching up the scissors that hang from a magnetic hook on the fridge to poke at the grey, stretched-silk skin. ‘Get away from here!’ And as he moves behind her in an unseen gesture of support, the smell hits him, that hot-fat smell which always reminds him of the beer garden where they went on their second date, that had looked perfect in the pictures but—disaster—had been built next to the kitchen vents, and thus reeked of thrice-fried chips and oil-dunked bean burgers, and where they had both soldiered on, neither wanting to appear an unattractive fusspot, tiresome in demands for olfactory purity wherever they dine, until an older American couple on the table next to them had exited, loudly expressing their revulsion, and he’d met her gaze with amused agreement before following them out.
‘Get back,’ he shouts, trying to take the scissors from her. Spinning, she shifts her grip and attacks the thing over-armed with a frenzied stabbing that has no effect at all, a toothpick to a tyre, until eventually it withdraws from the window and rolls completely off the corner of the block, the both of them so still as they listen to the second of silence, the gravelly crunch, and the sound of it wobbling around the corner in the direction of the main road.
‘It’s gone,’ he says, and turns in time to witness the rolling of her eyes.
‘But why did it come in the first place? The window was blacked out.’
‘It wasn’t trying to hurt us, I think. Just passing over. The glass couldn’t take the weight.’
‘Well, aren’t I lucky.’ She waves the scissors towards the mess on the floor. ‘So now there’s this. On top of all this shit, I have to find the money for a new window.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he says. After a moment’s hesitation, he steps forward to take her by the shoulders, with a pause just before his hands come to rest, waiting for that shake of her head. ‘I can pay half.’
But she neither rejects him, nor softens under his touch. Instead, she stands there, teeth working her bottom lip, eyes on his. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ she murmurs, and he knows the it’s my flat, my private home, you are here on sufferance, and what money have you got anyway might be unspoken, but that doesn’t stop it being real, and anyway, he abruptly realises, the broken window might only be the start of the evening’s events—he’s seen the pictures from Glasgow, the flattened school in Milan—so volunteering to pay towards the cost of any damages before he knew their true extent would be unwise. There’s nothing to do but nod, drop his hands, and move back in an almost ceremonial fashion, like the measured step of a graduate or newly arisen knight. ‘We can talk about it later.’
‘Do you have anything to cover the window?’
‘Nothing dark enough.’ Another shrug. ‘A blanket, I suppose.’
‘Great. I’ll hang it over the hole and we can wedge a pillow against the bottom of the door to make sure.’
She fetches the blanket—more a quilt, it turns out: steel-grey, slippery, difficult to wrangle—and helps him loop it over the curtain rail, securing the fold with wooden pegs from under the sink. They work in darkness, her face near his armpit, her breasts at his back, and the result is clumsy but serviceable. When they have retreated into the living room, he feels safe enough to bring the conversation back to better things, and is searching his mind for a topic when she speaks.
‘Do you think it will be back?’
‘Probably not.’ She’s upset, of course. The window. The smell. ‘It’s off the building now.’
‘Okay.’ Stooping, she adjusts the pillow by the closed kitchen door. ‘As long as you’ll be safe.’
‘Safe?’ he says, before he can stop himself.
‘On your way home.’ She stands and, without looking, puts a toe over a shard of window glass, shifts her weight and crunches it underfoot, and he knows that she means it, because otherwise she would have wanted to fight for longer, raise their voices and wring the misery from each other like water from a dishcloth, more, and again, until the cloth is dry, the palms of their hands sore, and then even more still, until there was nothing left but to collapse into each other and whisper words like sorry, forgive, try.
There was none of this now, and—as surely as the thing outside would be back—he knew they were done. The realisation made his stomach lurch, but at least it was a familiar sickness, one that he knows will end. Best to start the process right away. He’ll gather the few items left here over the last months, kiss her a firm goodbye and ramble back to his grubby room, singing songs from bands he’d liked when he was still at school.