cw: death of a child, alcohol use
He says he never brings girls back to his place because he’s embarrassed about his flat.
I tell him that I’ve lived in some horrible places myself, places with mouldy wallpaper hanging off the ceiling, mildewed curtains, bloodstains on the walls and a ground-floor window fashioned from cling film and Sellotape. I tell him that, one time, a guy took me to a crack den on our first date and tried to kiss me on a damp, fire-damaged mattress while a rottweiler attempted to eat my handbag. And I tell him that my friend dropped a hot microwaved chilli con carne on his kitchen floor four years ago and it’s still there. So I’m sure his flat would be lovely.
And it is. It’s spotless. It’s a modern studio flat with high ceilings and big windows, and he has loads of books and records, but it isn’t messy or cluttered at all.
“Got any booze?”
“Yeah, there’s some beer in the kitchen sink. And some vodka, I think.”
I go over to the sink and, sure enough, find some bottles of Bud bobbing around in the bitterly cold water that fills the sink to its brim.
Oh, and some vodka. Not much, but enough.
And two pints of semi-skimmed milk.
And a pot of strawberry yoghurt. And 500g of extra mature cheddar cheese in a Ziploc bag.
And some kind of ham in a Ziploc bag.
And half a cucumber in a Ziploc bag.
I hear his voice behind me.
“This why I don’t bring girls back.”
“Cos I don’t have a fridge. People think it’s weird. People think I’m weird.”
“Cos everyone has a fridge. They don’t know how I survive without one.”
“I mean, why don’t you have a fridge? Do you just not want one, like how I don’t ever want a TV so I’m never going to get one?”
“No, it’s not that I don’t want one. I just can’t.”
“Oh. I see. Your electricity bill must be lower than everyone else’s though, right?”
“No, well, yeah, probably. I just can’t have one. I…”
I can see he’s starting to panic.
“Hey, it’s alright, I actually think it’s cool that you don’t have one. No pun intended on ‘cool’, either.”
And then he blurts it out: “I’m scared of fridges.” I say nothing.
“And freezers. Fridge-freezers. Fridges. Freezers. All of it.”
“Woah. Ha. Okay. Erm. I’m guessing you had a bad experience. Did you get locked in a freezer once or something?”
I laugh too much and open the beers with my teeth.
His face pales.
“No. Not me. Someone else.”
“Jesus. Sounds pretty–”
“Bad. Yeah, it was. It was really bad.”
I remind myself that I am a listener, not a therapist. I am a listener, not a therapist. Listener, not therapist.
“Wanna talk about it? Come, sit with me.”
We sit on the window ledge and dangle our legs out. I light us each a cigarette.
“It was ages ago, when I was a kid. I was nine. And a half. We were playing hide and seek in the scrapyard near my old house. Me and Tommy. He lived a few doors down from me and we used to play out after school.”
I stare at him for a second too long and then flick some ash off my tights. We watch it fall one two three four floors down until it disappears. The air has changed, as if charged with uncomfortable static. I only came here for a fuck, and now he seems… upset.
“We were playing hide and seek. It was his turn to hide. I counted to 30 because the yard was huge and there were so many cool places to hide, like old cars and empty skips and that. I looked for him for fucking ages. Fucking ages. In the end I was shouting TOMMY I GIVE UP. COME OUT NOW. I GIVE UP. It was getting dark. I guessed that he had just gone home cos he got bored or cos his sister came to get him or he had gone off with some of his own pals.”
Beer. Inhale. Exhale. Beer. Exhale. I wonder if I should change the subject.
“Anyway, I heard my mam calling my name to tell me that my tea was on the table getting cold. So I shouted LAST CHANCE TOMMY, I’M GOING NOW, I’M NOT JOKING, FINE, I’M LEAVING NOW, BYE. Went home, had my tea, forgot all about it. Went to bed. Then my mam woke me up in the middle of the night to ask me if I’d seen Tommy cos he didn’t come home for his tea and his mam was worried cos nobody had seen him and the police were downstairs and wanted to ask me if I’d seen him. I was scared cos I thought I would be in trouble and I thought the pigs would take me to jail and they wouldn’t believe me if I said I didn’t know where he was, even though I would be telling the truth but grown-ups never believe kids so I didn’t say nothing.”
Inhale. Exhale. Beer.
“Next morning everyone went out searching the scrapyard. Neighbour said they heard some kids playing there the night before, and we all used to play down there all the time, so they started looking for him there. They had sniffer dogs.”
He tenses up.
“Then at school in the middle of last lesson we all got taken into the hall for an assembly and the headmaster told us that Tommy Greenwald had passed away. That we were all devastated by the loss of such a bright young lad. That the funeral was on Friday, that the school choir would be singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at the service and that we were encouraged to wear our Liverpool shirts to the church. That we would be making condolence cards in class that would be passed on to his mam and sister, and that if we see his family in the street, we must treat them with the utmost respect.”
Inhale. Exhale. Beer. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
“Long story short, they found him in a fucking fridge. One of them massive industrial ones. The pigs in the assembly warned us of the dangers of playing in the scrapyard. They suspected no foul play, that this was a tragic accident. How he must have opened it, got in, shut the door and of course it don’t open from the inside, does it, and it was sealed shut so he fucking suffocated. Nobody could hear him scream because the yard was so big. His screaming made him die faster. He was six years old.”
“Jesus H Christ.”
Beer. Inhale. Reach for vodka. Exhale. Vodka. Inhale. Exhale. Beer. Inhale.
“You know it’s not your fault, don’t you?”
“No. It’s not. Even if you told Old Bill where you were playing, they wouldn’t have saved him any sooner. He would’ve… gone quite quickly, I imagine.”
“Six years old.”
Vodka. Vodka. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.
“I should’ve looked more, for longer.”
“No. You were a kid. Something awful might’ve happened to you too if you stayed out wandering the scrapyard in the dark. You weren’t to know, anyway. You weren’t to know.”
I am a listener, not a therapist.
Beer. Inhale. Exhale. Vodka.
“You’re the only person I’ve ever told that to.”
“What? Not even your mother, or Tommy’s family?”
Beer. Beer. Inhale. End of beer.
“Shit. I don’t even know what to say.”
Silence. Exhale. Silence. Silence. Silence. Inhale.
“Hey, I’m sorry to change the subject, but I’m gonna grab us another drink – I think we need it.”
“Go for it.”
“Is there any more beer in the…”
About The Author
HLR (she/her) is a prize-winning poet, working-class writer, and professional editor from north London. Her work has been widely published since 2012, most recently by Hobart. HLR is the author of prosetry collection History of Present Complaint (Close to the Bone) and micro-chapbook Portrait of the Poet as a Hot Mess (Ghost City Press). She is Assistant Poetry Editor at Outcast Press.
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