Stone-coloured pillows

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Chapter 2

2

Jamie was downstairs, performing two of his favourite pastimes: poaching eggs and worrying about his girlfriend. He did this often, because his favourite breakfast food was poached egg and because his girlfriend was Julia: impulsive, difficult, brilliant. He spent much of his time concerned that he could never quite tell what she was thinking. Their mornings together were often brief: Julia had class at 8:45 and was never one for early waking. It was not unusual therefore, when, this morning, as he had pressed himself against her, nuzzling into her short hair, she had been unresponsive, until, having snoozed the three alarms she set each day, she rolled out of bed with a soft “fuck” at 8am. Julia swore a lot. She tried to refrain herself from doing so in front of his family, but swear words would inevitably cascade out of her eventually, accompanied by a tutting from his mother or sister - they were not Julia’s biggest fans.

As she rose, Julia’s lips brushed a gentle, unsatisfying kiss on Jamie’s stubbled cheek. Then she grabbed her towel from their bannister and ran down the stairs. For a dancer she was pretty heavy-footed, he thought.

As was often the way, Julia was a hurricane that morning: grabbing books scattered on their floor, throwing on various garments, throwing them off again; she had an unusual fashion sense - eclectic some may say. Those who were less kind would call her strange. Julia was her own person though, and despite dozens of unhappy evenings spent wondering why she seemed to make adversories at the same rate as she made friends, Julia had grown into more than just her features since her childhood.

Once she had left for the day, her half-finished bowl of cornflakes left abandoned in the sink, and Jamie had polished off the last of his toast and egg, cleaning both his crockery and Julia’s with a roll of his eyes, he went back upstairs. He did not have to leave for work until 11, he had some hours left to kill. Pulling down his tatty Calvin Klein pyjama bottoms his mother had given him a few Christmases back, he settled himself on the bed he and Julia shared. She was his bird. Not in the way that men call girls birds, not like that at all. Jamie often imagined Julia as a Goldfinch, a garden bird. He imagined himself as the gardener who provides the bird-feeder. He liked to feel that he was accountable for Julia’s peaceful twittering. That she belonged to him.

Jamie worked his hand up and down his shaft as he watched two lesbians kissing and fingering each other on the screen of his phone. He did this more and more often now, when Julia was out. Looking at women, not just on porn sites, but wherever - it made him feel like he was taking back some control, taking vengeance even, by cumming with the image of another woman in his mind. His orgasms were quick, but ultimately fruitless, the momentary satisfaction chased almost immediately by a bitterness. His relationship with Julia was not how it had once been, and he blamed her for that. He was, after all, the perfect boyfriend.

Music blared out of the dysfunctional speakers of the Micra.

Julia sang along. Anyone who listened to music with Julia, and that was most of her acquaintances, for Julia was almost always listening to music, knew that she could not help herself - she always had to sing along. It was not exactly a performance, though she did love to perform. The desire, the need to sing, was linked much more closely to the fact that Julia felt the music more if she was a part of it. When she simply listened, she sat in the shallows, the music washing over her in pleasant vibrations; at low tide. But when she sang, that was when the music engulfed her, swallowed her, drowned her. She liked that.

Right now she was singing; faux-happily, for her insides were in turmoil. Julia had done it again - in her impulsiveness she had ruined a good thing. Her father had often told her she was reckless, selfish. With each passing year, Julia found herself believing him more and more. She had felt something with Christopher. Some part of her that she had previously not been able to access felt as though it had been unlocked; she was entranced. It had not just been the sex - unusually good though it had been - it was more about the way Christopher thought, the way he spoke, his calmness, his resolution. They had met and within a few exchanged sentences Julia found herself thinking ’we are the same. It was a connection she did not have with Jamie. It had fascinated her.

She pushed the thought from her head. Her perceived connection, real or alcohol-induced, did not matter. She had ruined it again. Now she would have to back-pedal away from the man who had been her companion for the last 13 months, remove herself from him. Despite her love for performance, Julia hated lying, though she had done her fair share of it. It drained her, sucked some of her light away. Julia knew what happened as soon as she was unfaithful; she thought back to the previous handful of relationships, scolding herself. She would have to leave.

‘No, I can’t’, this would be a really bad time to leave; she had exams coming up, she could not uproot herself like that again. Again, the pang of guilt. ‘Selfish’, she thought. Besides, no one knew. Christopher could keep a secret, she knew she could too. In that moment, torn somewhere between a deep guttural pain, and a bubbling, nervous excitement, Julia resolved that she would not speak to Christopher, or anyone, about the night they had shared. She would wipe it from her memory, pretend it never happened. If no one knew, was it even real?

Pulling into a teacher parking space, Julia grabbed her suede bag, heavy with textbooks, donned her ‘student’ lanyard, and set off for class. Her breathing quickened as she trotted up the hill to her lecture; the October air was chilling, Winter was beginning to rear its head, but still the beads of sweat began to form under Julia’s fringe in the glinting autumnal sun.

She made it into class with one minute to spare; sitting in her usual seat beside Jemima, she took a final peek at her phone - still no message from Christopher. She wondered if he was thinking of her. Then she took him like a puppet, lifted him by a string, and placed him in a little box in the back of her mind, where he knocked for her attention ceaselessly, while she tried to concentrate on the string of equations on the whiteboard in front of her.

The mouse chased futilely across the two screens of his computer;

the clarity Christopher had felt that morning had very quickly been clouded by his own overactive thoughts. Julia’s face had remained in his mind, and every useless attempt to dispel the image only seemed to bring it into further focus. As he rode into work, the leather seat comfortably vibrating between his legs, the guilt and fear grew, chasing him down the A34. He fled from it, pulling the throttle back recklessly, overtaking every vehicle, until Christopher looked down and saw the needle of his speedometer wavering excitedly around 120mph. ‘Woah’, he released the throttle, the deceleration catching him like a blow, the motorbike, dragged by an invisible force from behind, felt as though it was melting itself into the pavement. Usually calm and level, Christopher felt as though he had woken that morning on a rollercoaster he hadn’t queued for. ‘Steady yourself’, he commanded.

It hadn’t worked: the mouse still chased around the screen and Julia still burned in his mind - now she was below him, with eyes closed. Now she was sitting beside him on the piano stool they had shared as they played a slow, improvised duet of Primavera. Now she was crying, screaming that it was his fault; her hair was wet, he did not know why. The screaming stayed, mellowed into a low drone that became the soundtrack of his morning and of many days to follow, and his right leg shook to the beating of a silent drum.

Looking over his shoulder, Christopher cast a glance across the office - dozens of shirt-clad men sat at the desk around him. It was a young company, almost everyone who worked for his father had grown up watching the Simpsons and dreaming of getting laid to songs by Greenday. Over the lowered heads, Christopher could see into the glass office his dad was working in. He could see the frown scrunching his father’s once-handsome face as he looked at the screen of his computer, he was leaning back in his leather chair, hand absentmindedly stroking his own stubbled chin. His father had greyed considerably recently, his once dark hair had transformed itself, as though the artist who had painted it had drastically changed their mind one day: overlaying the dark with tones of white and silver.

He watched on as his father sat; thinking about how their relationship had changed since he had quit his job in London and agreed to work for the family business. Interspersed moments of closeness throughout Christopher’s childhood had faded to memory, and now no conversation with his father didn’t have a business under-tone to it: Christopher was an employee first and a son second.

His musings were interrupted by an abrupt movement from within the study; his father stood now, mobile phone in hand, he leant forward on his desk, the expression on his face caught somewhere between surprise and concern and his eyes fixed on his son. ’Shit’, thought Chris, his stomach dropping to somewhere below the Earth, ‘here comes the rain.’

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