Colette is ready to leave when I go into the kitchen for breakfast. She’s in the pencil skirt she always wears to work and when she rinses her mug out in the sink it hugs her hips and thighs, the hem of it brushes the top of her calf. She turns as I scrape the chair out from under the table and sit on it.
‘Good morning. You’re up early,’ she says. ‘Have you got anything planned for today?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you feel alright?’
‘You look pale. You haven’t been yourself lately.’
‘I’m fine, just tired.’
‘You were talking in your sleep again last night.’
I stand up. ‘What did I say?’
‘Don’t panic, you didn’t give away any secrets. None of it really made any sense. You asked if I was breathing and then said something about a burglary. It was more lucid than normal, actually. And you were crying. You were a bit weird, to be honest.’ She kisses my cheek. ‘I’ve got a meeting at four so I probably won’t be back until late.’
‘It’s with a new investor. It’s really important.’
‘Sorry,’ she says putting her bag onto her shoulder. ‘I’ll try and get out early. See you tonight.’ She kisses my cheek again. ‘You should shave if you have a chance today. I put your good shirt in to soak, it was covered in wine. You’ve got to start getting a grip on yourself. You’re a mess. Try and get some rest,’ she says and leaves.
I haven’t slept properly since the night with Lucy. I’ve tried to convince myself that it was because of some great moral consciousness; a feeling of shame, sadness or even remorse. But in truth I’m terrified that if I fall asleep I’ll mutter something about Lucy and Colette will hear it.
Last night I didn’t sleep at all. I lay in bed watching my pink breath eddying up towards the ceiling. Colette was asleep next to me. Her hair flowed over the pillow and even in the dark it seemed to shine. The movement of the muscles in her neck as she breathed seemed inhumanly elegant; like the movement of the tide. Her skin was flawless against the white pillow and she had the sheets wrapped around her like a Roman goddess.
I looked around at the white, iron bed frame she had paid for, the art on the wall she had chosen, the oak bookcases she’d bought for me and the view of the beach from the flat that she paid the rent for. I wasn’t even sure if it was really to her taste, but they were the kind of things people like her were supposed to have. Image was everything to her. I was out of place in it all. Everything was neat, stylish and had a touch of class about it whilst I sat untidily naked, disrupting the bedcovers. I went over to the wardrobe and looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d shaved. I hadn’t so much grown a beard as cultivated thickets of hair at intervals across my chin. It looked as if my jaw had mange. I opened my mouth and my teeth seemed surprisingly white but it only made everything else look worse. My tongue looked grey and potholed. It rolled about in my mouth like a sunbathing seal.
I went out of the bedroom and into the lounge. The photo above my desk of me and Colette at her cousin’s wedding was lopsided so I straightened it. We looked happy in it. For all of Colette’s beauty she never photographed particularly well. This picture was the exception.it was the only time since I’d known her that she had got drunk. The drink knocked all the control and poise out of her. The photo caught her mid-laugh, her head leaning against my shoulder and her hand a blur as she playfully hit at my chest. I was wearing the blue shirt I’d left at Lucy’s house.
Colette had given me the shirt on our first Christmas together. It was the most expensive item of clothing I’d ever owned. She would tell me to wear it if we went out to a good restaurant or to one of her work’s dinners. She was certain to notice that it was missing and there was no reasonable excuse I could think of for its disappearance. I could see the shirt crumpled on the floor of Lucy’s kitchen. Colette would never forgive me if she found out. To find out about Lucy would crush her. I needed to get it back.
The orange of the street lamps gave the empty street a dream-like quality. The damp cobbles glistened in the lights and seagulls silently padded the rooftops following me. I stopped and looked at the sign stuck to the window of the shop on the corner. It was a white card with a black border and the name printed across the middle of it. The funeral, it said, was to take place on Thursday.
I carried on down the street and remembered Lucy and I staggering down that same road. Her heels kept slipping in the cobbles so she threw them into someone’s garden and walked barefoot. Her hand brushed my thigh as we walked and she kept stopping, pulling me closer to her and whispering promises of what was to come. I’d walked into her at a party earlier in the night and she’d spilt wine down my shirt. When I opened my mouth to say sorry she had pushed her tongue into it. I let her kiss me. I let her lead me by the hand into a quiet corner of the party and kiss me more. I let her rub at my crotch and let her put my hand up her skirt. The draw was more fascination than attraction; her looks couldn’t compare with Colette’s; her face was too soft and wide, as was her body, but – as well as being openly sexual – her actions were passionate, energetic and uncontrolled; she was so different from Colette that she almost seemed wild.
It was pouring with rain when we left the party and we were soaked through when we reached her house. Her nipples showed through her blouse. She had unbuttoned half the blouse before we had got in the house.
‘Don’t you lock the door?’
She unbuttoned the rest of her blouse.
‘Aren’t you worried someone will break in?’
She pulled the blouse, tight with the water, from her shoulders. Her breasts were large and fell clumsily against her ribs. She had a scar across her stomach that cut diagonally through the folds of flesh that appeared as she walked.
I closed and locked the door. The living room was littered with discarded clothes, books, bottles and glasses.
Lucy unzipped her jeans and slipping them down her thighs.
I sat on the arm of a chair, took off my coat and picked up a book to try and look comfortable.
‘I’m naked. Aren’t you at least going to stare at me?’ she said pouring a glass of wine.
From where I sat the glass magnified her pubic hair which was a thick and wild square that barely seemed to taper before disappearing between her legs.
I scratched at the top button of my shirt unsure whether I should start undressing too. I rubbed at the stain on the pocket and thought of Colette.
‘Could I soak my shirt somewhere?’
She walked over to me and unbuttoned my shirt. She took it off, walked to the back of the room with it and threw it out into the kitchen. She came back across the room and took my hand as she had at the party. She pulled me across the room to the sofa and lay back with her legs parted.
I lay in Lucy’s bed exhausted but kept awake by the sound of my own breathing. She lay still and quiet beside me. It was a complete contrast to just moments before when her ceaseless movement had been hungry and unstoppable. She had panted orders at me and constantly changed positions, pulling me from one surface to another.
‘That was… it was… I’ve never known anything like it.’
She didn’t say anything. Her breathing was slow and calm. I tried to calm mine. I looked across at the clock on her cabinet. It was three am.
‘I’m going to have to go soon. I didn’t realise it was so late.’
She didn’t answer so I lay still and looked at the aertex of the ceiling unravel and reset itself as I drifted in and out sleep. After what could have been a minute or a day I repeated that I had to leave. She still didn’t answer. I turned to her and her eyes were shut. I got up and tried to find my clothes in the dark. I put on my underwear and jeans and sat on the side of the bed. Her body was completely uncovered with the duvet thrown back and draping onto the floor. The creases and ripples on the sheet seemed like an extension of the scar on her stomach. I leant over and kissed her shoulder, but she didn’t stir. I brushed the hairs away from her face.
‘Lucy, I’ve got to go.’
She was peaceful and calm. Her breaths barely moved her heavy breasts.
‘Lucy, I have to leave,’ I said shaking her arm. ‘Lucy, are you okay?’
Her breath faltered slightly and sounded gravelly. I shook her torso to try and wake her. Her breath became deeper and sounded painful.
I let go of her and got up off the bed. Her breath sounded like paper tearing and her skin started to turn purple. She drew in a huge breath and then she just stopped and there was nothing. The rattling of her breath was silent. Her body didn’t move.
I desperately felt for her pulse but couldn’t feel anything except the blood beating around my body. I put my ear to her mouth and watched her chest, praying for it to move or for her to whisper in my ear, but nothing happened.
I ran downstairs, found the phone by the door and called an ambulance. I couldn’t bring myself to go back upstairs to her and I sat on the bottom step. It had happened so quickly. She had been fine and then, suddenly, nothing. Yet even before it happened I knew that the deep breath was her last. There was something inevitable about it. But there had been no warning, no signs of it coming; she had been over-spilling with life just a few moments before. It was as if she had burnt herself out, like she had overheated. I wandered if I had done it by shaking her. I didn’t think that I’d shaken her very hard but maybe I’d hurt her. Or maybe I should have shaken her more. I should have done something rather than just sitting there and watched. Watched her die. Died, Christ, she had died.
It wasn’t my fault. I just had to keep calm and explain to the paramedics exactly what had happened. But they wouldn’t believe it. No-one would believe it. Young women didn’t just suddenly die for no reason: they’d think she had been killed; they’d think I’d killed her. They would assume I was some kind of sexual maniac or rapist. I had to leave before the ambulance got there.
I put on my coat and ran down the road. As I reached the corner by the shop I heard the ambulance approaching from the other end of the street.
I stood in the doorway of Lucy’s bedroom. The bed was neatly made; there wasn’t even a dent where her body had been. Nothing else in the house had changed. It all seemed too normal. I had expected there to be a line of police tape outside, flowers, some kind of a shrine or at least a sign to show there had been some tragedy there. The house looked the same as the rest of the houses in the street. The clock on the cabinet was still ticking around. I had assumed that the room would have been turned over. I had thought there would be a huge forensic investigation and they’d find my fingerprints and DNA all around the house. The post-mortem would find my saliva and semen and they’d find her blood pumped full of alcohol. They’d find my shirt discarded in the kitchen and mistake the wine for blood. I had waited all week for the story to come up on the news about the young girl found dead in her home and the only witness and suspect who, having phoned for an ambulance, had fled the scene. No story was in the news, the police didn’t break down my door and there wasn’t even an obituary in the local paper. The little white card in the window of the corner shop was all that there was. The funeral of Lucy Osborne will take place on Thursday 27th at 11am in the Church of the Sacred Heart. Lucy Osborne. I hadn’t even known her surname.
I sat on the bed. The room still smelt of her. It surprised me. I thought it would smell disinfected, like a hospital, or of incense or of something suitable for a dead person’s house. I leant back and looked up at the ceiling. The ceiling I had gormlessly stared at whilst she lay dying. I thought for a moment that I heard Colette’s voice calling my name. The sound of Lucy’s dying breaths filled the room again and I quickly went back downstairs
On closer inspection, I realised that everything wasn’t exactly as we had left it. The clothes and books in the living room were still there but had been put into neater piles and the glasses and bottles had been put away. I found it bizarre, almost creepy, that someone had come in to tidy up and make the bed. It was as if it were a hotel room, not the scene of someone’s death.
I went through the door at the back into the kitchen. My shirt was hung over the back of a wooden chair. I picked up the shirt and her green blouse was under it. It had dried out. I sat down and did up the buttons that she had undone so casually. I ran my hand down the sleeve. My fingers stroked her arms, down her chest and along the scar on her stomach. I brought the shirt to my lips and tasted her. I felt her tongue against mine. I pushed my breath into the chest of it trying to pump life back into her but the shirt remained saggy, empty, lifeless.
Colette was still asleep and had barely moved. Even in her sleep she kept her perfect poise; her chin tilted slightly up and her lips seductively pouted. She held the sheets tightly to her chest.
I threw the shirt into the wardrobe and undressed. I lay in the bed and tried to listen for the sounds of her breath. I couldn’t hear it.
I shook her.
‘I didn’t think you were breathing.’
‘What are you talking about? Are you crying?’
‘I’m sorry Colette.’
‘For what? What’s the matter?’
‘Everything. I got wine on the shirt and I don’t think it will come out. I would have soaked it before now but she died and I left it in the house and I had to break in to get it back.’
‘What shirt? What are you talking about?’
‘The blue one. The one you gave me.’
‘It’s okay. It doesn’t matter.’
‘Shout at me. Show some passion for God’s sake. I may have killed someone.’
‘Stop it. Stop shouting. It was just a dream. Go back to sleep, I’ve got an important meeting tomorrow.’
‘Sorry, I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. Just go back to sleep.’
She fell asleep straight away. I sat and watched the sheets move up and down with her breaths.
Mark Plummer is twenty-eight and lives in Cornwall, England. He has short stories published in UK literary magazine including Prole andRiptide Journal as well as magazines and anthologies in the USA, Canada,Australia and UAE. He has written andperformed in plays for UK arts festivalsand is currently writing his first novel. Follow him on twitter @MarkRossPlummer