It is like this every Saturday morning; Chris dips down beneath the duvet and covers his head with a pillow. His upstairs neighbours are having sex; he listens to their groans of pleasure as the sound of a headboard banging against some unseen wall reverberates down to his own bedroom.
He still finds it strange, six months on, that for the first time in his life he is living in a building where no one knows his name. He catches glimpses of people as he leaves for classes in the morning, or after he walks down the three flights of stairs it takes for him to reach the bins out the back, but he doesn’t know anyone here, not even the names of the couple upstairs who he hears in their most intimate of moments.
A Masters in philosophy, that is what tempted him across the narrow slit of the Irish Sea to this wet and uninviting city. He doesn’t like Glasgow but he is stuck here until his dissertation is finished so tries to make the best of things. He will have to go to work soon, walk down Battlefield road to the café and put on his apron for the afternoon. Who knows, maybe she will come in again? The girl whose face he pictures in his mind at night, imagining her touch as he brings himself to climax. Then, as the mess of sperm cools and congeals against his stomach, he resents his own thoughts. He doesn’t even know her, just another nameless face in a city where he does not belong.
The couple upstairs are getting louder so Chris stands up, his toes cracking as he presses them into the carpeted floor and stretches his back. He goes into the bathroom, takes off his boxers and has a shower. Steam consumes the narrow room, fogging the window and mirror. He could stay here all day, sit in the large bathtub and just let the warm water fall down and slide off his skin. He loses track of the time and as he steps out onto the bathroom floor, shocked by the coldness of it, realises he is late for his shift.
He brushes his teeth, styles his hair and gets dressed. Before leaving the flat he walks from living room to kitchen to bedroom and back again, making sure that all the plugs have been taken out of the sockets – a habit he picked up as a child – and then he leaves, double bolting the door behind him. Most of the time he likes the anonymity of living alone, but wonders now how long it would take for his body to be found if he were to suddenly die. A few days? A week? Descending the stairs to the entrance he smells the usual scent of weed coming from one of the second storey flats and wonders what his neighbours have learnt from him, the noises he makes when he thinks no one can hear, or about the schedule he keeps.
It is raining when he walks out onto the main road. A light drizzle that doesn’t seem to wet the clothes, yet dampens the skin all the same. He jogs around to the café but when he arrives it is almost empty and Joanne, the manager, just smiles and tells him not to worry about being a bit late. ‘Sure it’s too early for the rush,’ she says and asks him to go clear the tables.
He looks at the clock on the wall and then to the door. It is almost time. She comes in most Saturdays. Chris makes sure he is the one to serve her. He stands by the coffee machine cleaning cups and glasses, letting Joanne do most of the work while he waits.
Then, she walks in. He stares as she takes off a scarf and flicks her hair out from beneath the collar of her jacket, the beautiful sheen of it hitting the light from the ceiling, and he imagines if she is what the ancient Greeks would have considered a goddess.
‘A large cappuccino and croissant,’ she says, trying to work her Scottish tongue around the foreign word.
‘Anything else?’ he asks knowing the answer.
‘No, that’s the lot,’ she says, as her hand enters the fat purple bag hanging from the crook of her elbow and comes out with a small black purse.
‘You can take a seat and I’ll bring them over to you in a moment.’
‘Thanks.’ She smiles before taking position at her usual spot over by the far corner. Sometimes, when the seat is taken, Chris sees the pain in her eyes – those piercingly blue eyes – as it seems to dawn on her that she will have to find somewhere else to go.
He takes his time making her coffee, letting the milk foam to just the right level before gently pouring it into a large mug, taking pleasure as the shot of espresso corrupts the purity of it, spreading like a disease. He sprinkles on the chocolate, puts the croissant on a plate and brings them over.
‘Here we are,’ he says.
‘Oh great, you’re a star.’
He takes his morning break to coincide with her visit, sitting down at a table near her with a book to give him something to do. He catches the whiff of her shampoo, and the fruity smell gives him a hard-on. He knows it’s weird, the way he longs for her presence, and worries that if anyone were to find out how calculated his actions were around her, that he’d have to leave from embarrassment and never come back.
Her phone rings and he watches her stare at the screen for a long time, then she presses her finger into the glass and exhales heavily before putting the phone against her ear.
‘What?’ she asks, and rolls her eyes before speaking loudly ‘I told you not to call me.’ She listens for a few more seconds and then finishes the call, placing her phone face down on the table as if to cement her disgust with whoever was on the line.
‘Prick,’ she says to herself and then sips her coffee. She catches Chris watching her, and placing the cup back down on the table, turns to face him and asks, ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’
He stutters an apology and returns to the book in his hand, reading the same sentence over and over without any of the words registering. He can feel the heat rise in his cheeks and sweat pricks the back of his neck. He can’t remember the last time he’d been called out so plainly, and wishes he could remove himself from the situation, dissolve into the words on the page before him, or be swallowed up by the chair beneath him. But he can feel her stare, the intensity of her focus directed entirely at him. He listens as keys rattle in a bag, a startled noise like a baby being woken up from a nap. ‘Freak,’ she says, and he knows that she is talking to him, but pretends not to hear. Then the sound of her shoes against the wooden floor as she leaves the café.
He places the book on the table and presses the back of his hand against his clammy forehead. A sense of grief sweeps through him as powerful as a wave crashing into the shore, exploding in a foamy mess.
‘Are you alright?’ asks Joanne.
‘I think I need some fresh air.’
‘Yeah, go for a walk around the park, you don’t look too good.’
‘Thanks,’ he says and takes off his apron, leaving it on a hook behind the counter and steps outside.
He turns his head to the right, down towards his flat. The one thing he does like about Glasgow is the old tenement buildings that tower above everything else and seem to suck the light from the city’s streets. When he first moved over and began his search for somewhere to live, he was shocked by the bareness of the hallway in the first building he entered. The paintwork on the walls was cracked and fading, the floor nothing more than concrete. It took the second or third viewing for him to realise that they all looked like this.
The large bay windows and high ceilings, they almost made living here alone worth it. He thinks about his friends and family back in Ireland, how he would call or Skype and tell them how much he was enjoying himself, when really all he wants to do is get on the first flight back home.
Joanne is right, he will do a lap of Queen’s Park. It will help to clear his head. He turns to his left and starts up towards one of the gates. Clouds above him threaten rain – real rain – the kind that falls heavy and consumes everything in a matter of seconds. He has never been anywhere as wet in his life. At least it is spring now and leaves have returned to the trees that looked so bare all winter. He passes a few midday joggers as they run around the perimeter of the park and he walks through the gate beside the rose garden.
He doesn’t come here often. When the letting agent showed him around the area, he warned Chris that the park can be dangerous at times. A woman was murdered here a year ago, grabbed as she walked past at night. They found her mutilated body laid out on a bench in the middle of the park that sat surrounded by a grouping of cherry blossom trees. ‘But,’ the agent was quick to add ‘The flat comes with a subscription to Virgin and broadband inclusive in the rent.’
The duck pond looks a sad affair in the dull light of the day. He watches a swan glide across the centre with two signets in tow. He wonders if animals feel pain the way that humans do, wonders if the swan would grieve for her signets if they were killed or taken from her. He thinks about all this as he skims stones across the water, counting the number of bounces he gets.
He should probably get back to the café soon. Joanne was kind but he does not want to leave her stuck when all the families start showing up with loud children and complicated orders. She needs him. He walks the long way back, cutting through the centre of the park and stops when he reaches the neat semi-circle of cherry blossoms. He thinks for a moment that he can see the dead woman, imagines it is him who finds her body the morning after and looks around to make sure that the culprit isn’t nearby. They never did catch whoever it was.
She is there, reading a book, the girl who he dreams about. He does not move, doesn’t want her to see him after what had happened back at the café. He looks around for an escape route but has come too far into the semi-circle to leave unnoticed. She holds the book in one hand, a long slim finger on the spine, as her thumb turns the page. Her other hand plays with a strand of loose hair. She looks up and places the book on the bench beside her purple bag. Chris takes a step closer and then clears his throat.
‘I’m sorry about earlier,’ he says.
‘You didn’t do anything, I just lashed out.’
‘I’m Chris, by the way.’
A gust passes through them and picks the fallen cherry blossom leaves up off the ground. For a moment he is blinded as the tiny pink petals dance among themselves, celebrating this sweet resurgence of life, until they land back down onto the ground once more.
‘Can I buy you a coffee?’ he asks and waits.
Brendan McLoughlin was born in 1991 and grew up in Howth, Co. Dublin. He holds a BA in Economics, Politics and Law from Dublin City University and an MA in Creative Writing: Prose from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast, where he is currently a PhD student.
His work has appeared in The Irish Independent and The Honest Ulsterman. In April, he was named the 2014 Hennessy ‘New Irish Writer’ at the 43rd annual Hennessy Literary Awards for his short story ‘Last Breath’.