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“No,” said Nat, turning on her side in the bed, bleary. Pleading. “No, Jim, for the five thousandth bloody time. I can’t talk to you anymore.” And losing patience: “Go away, Jim. Leave me alone.”
She stabbed at the phone with her finger to end the conversation and dropped it with a clatter onto the side table. Feeling all sorts of things, mostly guilty. The longer you stayed, the worse it was when it ended. She’d always known that, probably. Loving someone wasn’t everything, she hadn’t known that. Jim, Jim, Jim. He needed help. She should be helping him, not hanging up on him.
The last time she’d seen him he’d cried: she’d let him put his face on her shoulder, she’d patted, helpless. “I can’t do this,” she’d said. Coward.
It was hot in the room: the boxes sat there still unopened, the big suitcase, crowding the small space. Although the window had been open all night, Nat—Natalie only to the older generation, to her mother, who had for four years lived a thousand miles away in a cheap bit of Spain—felt suffocated suddenly, and struggled upright. A green light filtered in past the curtains but no dawn chorus, it was too hot even for the birds. She sank back on the pillow; she buried her face. Six thirty and it was only going to get warmer.
There was a reason Jim called at the crack of bloody dawn, although sometimes it was midnight. He never actually came out with it, but the question hovered. Is there someone else there? Opening one eye, Nat monitored the bed beside her, although she knew already. Of course there bloody isn’t. She was alone.
On the bedside table the phone rang again. Sitting up furiously, arms folded across her chest, Nat stared at it. One of these days, Jim, please, Jim, don’t … Only it wasn’t him this time. Janine, said her screen.
As usual, Janine was already talking before Nat even got the phone to her ear. Voice lowered. Steve must have gotten in late.
Nat waited. You had to do that with Janine: every fifth word might be useful, if you were lucky. You had to let the rest of it go or your head would explode. Now she was addressing Nat, halfway through a sentence, hissing for her attention.
“Sorry, Janine,” Nat said. “What?”
“Not coming back, is what she said.” And Janine came to an expectant stop. Nat could picture her, half out of bed, rumpled cleavage, big hair askew.
A shaft of low, white-bright sun had gotten around the curtain. On the pillow, Nat shifted to get out of the dazzle and saw herself in the low dressing-table mirror across the room. A fierce line of eyebrow, short dark hair sticking up. “It’s so hot,” she said, disbelieving. Then, feeling it with a thud. “Hold on, did you say Beth’s—”
“Late night?” said Janine, impatient. “Have you been listening to a word I said, babe?” In her fag-fueled husky voice. “Look, I know the Tinder was my idea, you needed to move on, but—”
“Janine, I don’t … there’s no one…” Forget it. She started again. “What did you say?”
“Beth’s texted me. She’d met some bloke up there and she’s not coming back.”
Up there, where she was supposed to be looking after her poorly mum.
“Not coming back?” Nat repeated stupidly, and it was as if the air had been knocked out of her. She could hear her voice, sounding like a kid. “But she—”
The Bird in Hand without Beth? Beth winking across at Nat behind Janine’s back, a quick squeeze around Nat’s shoulders when Janine had just told her to cheer up, it might never happen. “But there’s … she’s supposed to be…” She stopped. Beth hadn’t told Janine, had she? She’s got a doctor’s appointment next week. Hospital.
Just routine. Bound to be nothing. Just a checkup. It had been Nat who had said that to Beth, just to get that look off her face.
Nat started again. “She said she—” Hold on, what had she said? Sorry babe no signal really up here see you soon.
Janine rattled on oblivious. “She said she’s met the love of her life, not coming back after all.” Impatient. “Whatever.”
“Love of her life?” Nat put a hand to her hair, feeling how short it was, feeling naked and exposed suddenly though she’d had it cut a month ago. She’d thought she was getting used to it, too.
“Ergo she won’t be opening up today, and there’s a brewery delivery scheduled for nine.” Janine was working up a rage. “Dumped me right in it, bloody typical.”
It was sinking in, but it didn’t feel any better. “I … you want me to come in and open up?” said Nat, trying to think.
Wheedling now. “I wouldn’t ask. Only Steve’s turned up, worn out, bless him, needs his nap. You know how he is.”
Did she? Big Steve, hardly opened his mouth to say a word, and Janine made it quite clear it wasn’t his mind she was after.
“All right,” said Nat, not paying attention now. Thinking instead, her heart pattering, it’ll be one of her adventures, just some bloke. Janine must think that too or she’d be pulling her hair out. Because Beth might come in late more often than not with last night’s makeup on and spend the first half hour cramming toast into her mouth, but she was the reason half the punters came in.
But Janine was back to the pub. “Look, love,” she said, confiding. “You’ve seen as many barmaids as I have, you know the type. She’s all lovey-dovey and your best friend—and she was, I know she thought a lot of you…” Nat wanted Janine to just shut up now, but of course she didn’t. “But when a certain kind of bloke comes along, well. We might as well not exist, not her mates, not her job, nothing. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Nat wasn’t going to say, She wasn’t like that. She said nothing.
“You can stay in the cottage,” said Janine, hearing the silence, wheedling again. “All right? As long as you like.”
Nat had been supposed to be finding a new place to live next week, Beth covering for her. Never mind that now. Things went around in her head.
What about the punters who’d been asking when Beth was getting back from her mum’s? What about her boots in for reheeling in town?
What about Beth’s hospital appointment? Next Monday, half past three. Dodgy smear test, she’d said with a scowl, stuffing the crumpled piece of paper into her pocket when Nat caught her in the kitchen staring at it, asked her what was up. Abnormalities, said Beth, not looking her in the eye, hand still in her pocket.
And then Nat had remembered a doctor’s appointment, weeks before, because she’d heard Beth ask Janine for the time off. Poor old Dr. Ramsay, she’d thought, with patients like Beth and Nat on her books, women and their insides.
Nat lay there another five minutes, the sheet over her face. When eventually she got up she meant to put the kettle on, but found herself at the window instead. She pushed the curtains out of the way and leaned over the sill, into the air. She could smell it, the dark smell of things stirred to the surface in the heat. The river.
Copyright © 2017 by Christobel Kent