The party’s winding down, but a few of us are still hanging on. There’s a gentle hum of conversation, spiked here and there with laughter, the sound of people spinning the end of the evening out as far as it will go.
I sit at the table, picking at a label on a beer bottle. Natasha and Jo are out on the balcony smoking, but I don’t want to join them. I’m feeling out of place, and a little resentful of how easily everyone else can fall into step with each other’s conversation, without a hint of self-consciousness. I am intensely aware of how awkward I am, how aloof I must seem hanging back in the kitchen. If I could crawl out of my own skin right now, I would.
Fancy a cuppa? I start at your voice over my shoulder. It’s your house too, of course, but Natasha is the housemate I come here to see, and you and I have never exchanged more than a couple of words in passing.
You open the cupboard revealing a wall of little boxes. You have at least a dozen varieties in here: Assam and Darjeeling through smoky oolongs to rooibos, mint and fennel.
I settle for Earl Grey. At home it was the tea that sat in the other caddy, the one we saved for a treat. A cup still feels like a little bit of luxury. A rock I can anchor myself to.
Your voice is gentle, and as warm as the steam that rises from the cup I’m now holding. You know a lot about art, while books and theatre are where my interests lie. We talk and talk, barely noticing as the sunlight begins to trace a golden trail across the wall.
Sunday mornings could go on forever. We wake late, then sit in bed with the papers until one of us decides that we really ought to get up. You’re usually the one to crack first. I’m too easily kept here by the weight of the duvet and the warmth of your skin.
At some point in the morning you’ll put a record on. Sonny Rollins is my favourite. The saxophone glides over me smooth as honey, as I sip my spiced chai, with one spoon of sugar too many.
A milky scum is starting to form at the top of the cup. Stone cold. It’s been nearly an hour now, and it’s a fingertip’s length out of my reach.
Emily shifts on my lap and exhales gently. Her eyelids flutter: she must be dreaming. I daren’t put her down, or try to shift position on the sofa. I can’t face the storm of wailing that would bring the afternoon crashing down on my head.
Maybe you’ll make me a fresh one when you come home, or maybe I’ll try my luck with the microwave later, if I can leave the room for long enough. Either way, it’ll be a long wait. The clock ticks, each second slower than the last.
We lace each other’s days with tiny traps. You forgot to call the school again. I worked through another bedtime without calling. We take a grim sort of pleasure in each victory.
You’ve let the bag steep too long in the pot, and now the brew’s turned bitter.
I put down the mug with a grimace, and the weary sigh that you are well used to hearing, by now. You tell me, with a familiar edge to your voice, that if I don’t like it, I can make it myself next time. The front door slams behind you.
I listen to the wind rattle the kitchen window. I should be dealing with the washing up, or the pile of laundry that Emily brought home last weekend. Instead, I think about the day we went to the shrine.
We’d gone up early that morning. We sat for a long time and watched a little girl, very young, laughing as her mother showed her how to ring the bell and clap. There were statues of foxes, and the cicadas in the trees against that deep blue sky sounded like forever.
On the way back to the train station it had started to rain. We bought two cups of sencha from a little stall halfway up the hill, congratulating each other on our choice. It tasted fresh and clean, and warmed us all the way through.
I hear a key in the lock, and a tentative step across the hall. I smile, and put the kettle on.
The last cup of the evening is always the best. You always know when it’s time. Just when I think I’m defeated, there you are with exactly what I need.
We bring each other the best scraps of our days, in the same way the cat proudly deposits balls of bloodied fur on the doorstep. You tell me your worries about your class and I tell you about the conversation I overheard on the train.
I close my laptop, and put my head on your shoulder. The house is quiet, and I can hear your breathing and the rain on the window. I am curled warm in your palm, perfectly safe.
I lie in bed, staring up at the patterns the moonlight etches on the ceiling. The pain wakes me, a deep ache right to the marrow that makes my movements slow. There’s still a furrow in the mattress where you used to sleep. Your mug, handle slightly chipped, sits downstairs, in the same cupboard that it always did.
Gripping the banister, I ease myself down there, step by step. If I’m very lucky, I’ll see your outline, faintly silver, sitting companionably at the kitchen table.
The cup’s empty, but still warm. I press it to my cheek and listen to the honey smooth melody, pouring itself along the very edge of things.
About The Author
Katy Naylor lives by the sea, in a little town on the south coast of England. She writes fiction, poetry and text adventure games in the time that falls between the cracks. She has work published in places including Ellipsis Zine, Expat Lit and The Bear Creek Gazette. Her debut chapbook, Postcards from Ragnarok (Alien Buddha Press) is out now.
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