First published August 2018 by Sleet Magazine (Spring-Summer issue 2018)
I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will –
Go to the door, look through the spyglass. It’s him again. Sigh. Unbolt the door and lift the latch.
“It’s a bit late, isn’t it?”
“Hi, yeah, I know, but I saw your light was on and, er… I’ve really fucked up, man, I’m sorry, can I come in?”
Sit down, opposite seats, one each side of the kitchen table. Get up again. Put the kettle on.
“Do you want a drink?”
“Yeah, thanks man, whisky’d be good.”
Pause, stare. Sigh. Open the cabinet, pour the drink. Sit down, arms folded.
“Yeah, well, so I spoke to her, and she doesn’t wanna know… she left me.” Head down on the table, sobbing into his sleeves.
Put an awkward hand on his arm. Sigh.
“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe she just needs some time to think. Look… you can stay here tonight if you like.”
“Hey, thanks man, I really appreciate it…”
“I’ll get you some stuff, you can use the sofabed…”
Pillow, blankets, whisky, lights out. Lights out. Lights out. Lights –
I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night –
Knock, knock. Quietly. A crack of light, the tiniest of creaks. A whisper.
“You awake dude?”
“Huh? What’s up?”
“This is gonna sound a bit weird man, but… can I sleep with you?”
“Not sleep with, I mean, just go to sleep with… I just need a hug, I’m sorry, I…”
Trails off into silence. Sigh.
Squeeze onto the single bed. Arms, warmth, a sob, a caught breath. Sleep.
Morning. Coffee, soap, mint, nicotine. The cold draught of an open door.
“Hey man, thanks for last night. I really don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d been left alone…”
“Don’t mention it. Actually I mean that, don’t mention it. She’ll go crazy if she knows you stayed here, and then you’ll really have no chance with her, will you.”
“Hehe… yeah. Good point. Okay, well, I’ll see you soon yeah?”
Door closed. Look at hands. More soap. Blankets to be washed, pillowcase, whisky glass. Tabletop, worktops, kettle, taps, cupboards, hands. Hands. Hands. Do something else.
Read a book, breathing in only on the good words. Good words? Good words, even number. If there is an odd number on the page, blink an even number of times to even it out. Breathe in the good words. Good is a good word. Breathe is a good word. Blessed is a good word.
What is this mark? Scratch at the page. A blackfly, trapped in the pages long ago. Black smudge, a pressed leg and wing. Dirty nail. Dirty book. More soap. No more reading.
The rinse cycle has finished. Hang things up to dry – not outside. Clothes horse. Straight lines and no creases. Brush them away, an even number of times, so they stay gone.
It gets dark so early this time of year. Best to stay in. Too cold, too dark. Time for hot food and TV. Chew everything an even number of times or it’ll get stuck in your throat and you’ll die, alone in your flat. You don’t want to die alone, do you? Have a drink with it, it helps. So cold. Warm drink and clean blankets. Clean but itchy blankets. Arm itches and scratching it doesn’t work, makes it itch even more urgently. How backwards is that? You’ll damage your skin if you keep scratching; it isn’t even helping, it’s just making it worse. Okay, four more scratches, downstroke and up, then you have to stop. Four more each side, then. Sympathetic other arm? Okay, eight more, then you have to stop. You have to stop. Why does it itch so much? Why doesn’t scratching help? You’ve broken the skin and now it hurts more than it itches. Continued scratching is really not worth it now. You have to stop. Two more each side, really dig the nails in, hold down, press hard, and stop. Fine white powder under my nails. Is that skin? Smells like rubber. Wash hands.
Early to bed will help, perhaps – hard to notice the itching when you’re asleep. Breathe in, breathe out, listen to your heartbeat. Two beats on the in-breath, two beats on the out-breath. Damn, that was three. Cough, twice. Cough over the sound of one beat – you know you only missed one because your internal count is that accurate. Not to worry; just blink an even number of times to balance it all out. Close your eyes and try to sleep. You are trying to sleep, not staring at the inside of your own eyelids. Eyes spasming, a pre-sleep REM. If they spasm an odd number of times, add a non-spasmodic eye movement to make it even again. You’re still in control really, you see?
Knock, knock. Knock, knock.
No, no, no, no…
“You awake man?”
Exasperating, covers flung back. Opening the window.
“Stop shouting, you’ll wake the whole street!”
“Can I come in for a bit?” Half-whispered.
Dressing gown and socks. Down the stairs, spyglass, sigh. Unbolt the door and lift the latch.
“Ah, thanks dude… whoa, it’s cold out there tonight…”
An awkward silence.
“Uh… do you mind if I grab a drink?”
“I’m out of whisky.”
“Oh – well, no worries, coffee’ll do.”
Cold outside hands grip the kettle, the taps, the cupboard, a mug. Outside fingers rootle through the cutlery drawer. Spoon, instant, fridge, milk. Drops of transparent and white across the floor. Frenetic stirring. Light brown circles on worktop and table.
Sit down, opposite seats, one each side of the kitchen table. Cheery grin meets cool stare. Cheery grin fades and looks intently into coffee.
“So, er… I spoke to her again, and er, it’s almost funny now I come to look back on it…”
Get up, open cupboard – dig nails under the lower edge, don’t use handle – fetch a glass for water. Not the taps. There’s some bottled water in the fridge – curl fingertips into the rubber seal, don’t touch the handle. Reseated.
“Well… she went pretty mental actually.”
“Well, I tried to explain things the way you’d explained them to me, and I said we’d spoken a lot and you’d helped me understand some things…”
“You told her we’d spoken?”
“Yeah, I said I’d been over.”
“Why the hell would you tell her that? You know she hates me.”
“I thought it was good to be honest with her. I don’t know why she hates you, she really shouldn’t…”
“But she does, and you know that, so why antagonise her?”
“But – I –”
An outside hand puts the mug down and runs cold fingers through thinning hair.
“Look… look, I love you man, you’re my best friend… She needs to get used to that…”
“Christ, you didn’t say that to her as well did you?”
“Well, pretty much, yeah.”
Hands go from around the glass of water to around the forehead, shielding, thinking, exasperated.
“What exactly do you want from her?”
Silence. Coffee is interesting. A sigh.
“Nothing this complicated, y’know?”
Hands move to reveal cynical brown eyes; they stare intently into watery blue ones. Brown turn away with a semi-concealed snort of contempt; blue contrive to look confused.
“I don’t know what to do, man…”
“Do you want me to tell you?”
Raised eyebrows above blue.
“Well, yeah, if you’ve got any ideas, I’d be grateful…”
“If I tell you, will you actually listen to me this time and take my advice?”
Blue, surprised confusion.
“Do you have any idea how much I value your opinion?”
One brown eyebrow arches, then lowers. Sigh and ignore the urge to scratch. Breathe in, breathe out, blinking twice on the in-breath, twice on the out-breath.
I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I do not need to count. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone. I will say this five times every night until the urge to count is gone.
Arms are itching again. Scratching doesn’t help, you know that. Okay, just scratch each one eight times. Eight times up and down. That was nine on the right. Ok, go to twelve now on both sides, then stop. Sixteen is twice eight, go to sixteen, but then you have to –
Knock, knock, knock.
“Dude, you in? Hello?”
Spyglass; it’s him again.
Stock-still in the hallway, staring at the door. The seconds pass.
“Hey, are you there? Please be in; I’ve really screwed up…”
Knock, knock, knock.
Unbolt the door and lift the latch.