The Descent of Man

Received Highly Recommended at the Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2016.

My mind swims into consciousness and I realise I am no longer asleep.  My eyelids draw apart.  Thin yellow light glints through the crack in my black out blinds.  I roll over, the warmth of the duvet cocooning my body and masking the ache in my shoulder.  An empty pillow.  The scent of your hair (chamomile?) emanates from the indent of the pastel blue pillow case.  I close my eyes. 

When I wake again I am in darkness.  A siren wails from the street and I catch my breath.  It passes and I relax, listening to the sounds of the night.  I get out of bed. The floor is cold and I shiver to the bathroom.  The hot shower trickles over my aching shoulder as I try not to look at the line of bottles and tubs with flavours like bergamot and honey.  I start to shave but I don’t recognise the man in the mirror.  His stricken eyes and thin mouth.  I wipe the foam off my bristly chin and go back to bed.

When I wake hunger drives me downstairs.  I tread tentatively, not wanting to see how the flat looks without you. What has been taken and what is left behind.  I smash eggs into a bowl (the free range you insist on buying) and make an omelette.  Chewing slowly I put the telly on and focus on the big screen not daring to look around.  At some point I fall asleep.

Sun is flooding through the thin lounge curtains.  If I keep my eye-lids closed I see cracked lines of blood running through them.  I stumble upstairs to the duvet and darkness.

I wake up with my head on your pillow, breathing deep trying to trace the scent.  It is there, faint but still there.  I doze.

Something wakes me in the night.  A cackling from the street, the laughter of drunk women, shrieking into the night.  Someone yells at them to shut up and they yell expletives back.  More cackling.  I pad over to the window, and peel back the blind in case it’s you.  Of course it’s not.  I let the blind fall and listen to the retreating heels clicking on the pavement.

I sleep until the afternoon.  I shower.  Grabbing a black bin bag I sweep your body wash and face scrubs and all trace of you out of the bathroom and dump them by the door.  There is a pile of post scattered on the door mat.  I catch my reflection in the mirror and I punch the glass.  Pain spikes up my arm and for a moment I forget.  It feels good and sweet before I’m jolted back to the present.  I spend the night picking glass out of my fist, blood trickling down my skin and staining the carpet. 

Rain pelts the window like machine gun fire.  The sky is so thick I don’t know if it’s night or day.  I turn the shower on but it doesn’t heat up.  I let the cold water run over me until my gums are blue and my body is trembling.  The heating doesn’t come on and I realise the gas hasn’t been paid (your job).  I eat cold soup from a can and watch the Hollyoaks omnibus.

I wake shivering.  I should go upstairs and get warm but it’s difficult to leave the couch.  I let the cold spasms course through me until the sun comes up. 

I pick mould out of the last piece of bread and spread it with butter.  A rotten smell makes my nostrils tingle.  The fruit has gone off without you here to eat it.  I throw it into another bin bag and leave it by the door.  I retreat to the warm duvet which I’ve brought downstairs, and watch kids TV.  A banging startles me awake. Someone’s calling my name.  I burrow into the duvet and hope they can’t hear the Peppa Pig theme tune.  The knocking on the door becomes more aggressive.  I cover my head and block my ears.  The duvet feels stiff and has a sour smell.  I try not to breathe too much. 

The banging stops and I wait in the dank duvet until my heart stops racing.  When I break the surface gasping for air the smell of the room hits me.  My eyes water and I stumble upstairs, fall on the bed and burry my face in your pillow.  I can’t find the camomile smell. I search with my nose sniffing every corner, my nostrils flaring in and out like a coke addict.  The sniffing turns to sobs and my tears mingle with the greasy-hair stains I’ve left on your pillow, my beard scratching the soft fabric. 

When I wake my feet are blocks of ice.  I stumble as I stand up, pulling on socks and jumpers and go downstairs avoiding the mess by the door.  I watch cooking shows and game shows and soaps, eating cereal with no milk straight out of the box.   My duvet is stiff and fetid and I wrap it around me like a cloak of shame.  I don’t know how many days I stay like this.

I’m woken by a loud noise, a banging, persistent and fierce.  Someone’s pounding on the door.  I’m aware of a voice, authoritative, commanding me to open up.  Then silence.  I pull my legs up to my chest and wrap my hands around my knees so only the top of my head is poking out from my nest on the couch.  There’s a crash.  The door flies open.  Men in dark uniforms swam into the house.  They’re pointing guns at me. Demanding I put my arms up.  I unlock my hands from around my legs and lift them shaking out of the duvet.  They relax. A woman covers her nose, her eyes wrinkling.  I see them looking around, taking in the scene.  The pile of post, the rubbish bags by the door, the filthy man on the couch, and you. 

You, lying crumpled and broken against the wall.  Where I pushed you, with these shaking hands.  Your eyes widened in shock at my anger as I clasped you around the throat.  Your terror fuelled my fury.  My blood pulsed, and it felt good, alive, and powerful.  I struck your chamomile scented head against the wall.  Not knowing how delicate you were, how you would crumble.   One sharp crack and you went limp, down you slid.  A trickle of blood and a thumb print on your neck.

I allow the man in uniform to lead me away.  I pass your once beautiful body now turning rancid as the tears stream down my face.