The girl sat on the bed, sighed and closed her eyes.
‘Two words: dismal and shit,’ she said.
The boy followed her inside the room and put down the case. His arms had gone numb and his throat was dry. ‘We’ll make it like home,’ he said. ‘We’ve bought your posters.’ He opened a case, pulled out a pink feather boa and draped it on the back of the chair. Then he took out a crumpled poster that had been rolled into a tube. He took off the rubber band and opened it up. It was Edward Hopper’s Girl at Sewing Machine.
‘Stop it, please,’ the girl said.
The boy held the poster against the wall above the desk. ‘Do you have any bluetac?’ he asked. ‘Did you bring any?’
‘I said stop it. You’re making me sad.’
The boy put the poster on the desk and looked at her. ‘I’m just trying to make you feel at home. It will be nice, when we’re done.’
The girl twiddled a strand of blonde hair between thumb and finger. Eventually, she said, ‘I don’t want to be here baby. I can’t speak French, I hate Lyon and I hate this room.’ She lifted her head from her hands. ‘Look, there’s no carpet. And this bed is as hard as a rock.’
The boy opened the thick beige curtains and let in the sunshine. It was a warm August evening and the sky was blue. Outside, a few students sunbathed on the grass. They were drinking beer and listening to hip-hop. ‘It’s only a year,’ he said. ‘It’ll go quickly.’
‘You said the same about Exeter.’
‘And I was right.’
They went outside, holding hands. It was the ultimate week of the holidays and the corridors were empty.
‘It’s soulless,’ she said.
‘It won’t be. When the other students get here.’
The girl looked like she was about to cry. ‘Let’s get drunk,’ she said.
They walked to the main road that led back into town. The girl clutched his hand. ‘I’m afraid I’ll lose you,’ she said. ‘You’ll go back to your boys and forget about me.’
‘Don’t be silly. We’re a team, remember.’
She smiled. ‘Dan and Jane.’
They found a bar on the outskirts of town. In one corner, four men played table football. They were shouting and swearing. A barman sat on a stall, his pencil poised over a crossword.
Jane said, ‘Est-ce que je peut avoir deux bieres si’il vous plait?’
The man grinned. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Plus de Anglais?’
‘Oui, je viens d’arriver. I’m studying French, over at the university,’ Jane said.
‘Well you’re very welcome,’ the man said. ‘Lots of English boys and girls come here. You’ll like it here.’
They sat at a table by the window and lit cigarettes. Dan took a sip of beer and looked through the window at the passing traffic. It was starting to get dark.
Jane said, ‘You don’t have to live here. You’ll forget all about it. In fact, I bet you wish you were on the train home.’
Dan said, ‘It’s exciting to live abroad. Just think how good your French will be when you come back.’
‘I don’t want an adventure,’ she said. ‘What you mean is an adventure without you. What you mean…’
‘I didn’t mean that at all,’ he snapped. ‘Don’t tell me what I mean.’
‘What did you mean?’
Dan said, ‘I’m just jealous, that’s all. You have a new place to explore and new people to meet. I’m going back to Durham. The same old faces, the same old pubs. It’s boring really, doing the same thing every week.’
‘Will you visit me?’
‘No you won’t. You can’t afford it and you can’t be bothered.’
Dan sighed. ‘I’ll use my student loan. I’ll come at Christmas.’
‘I’m coming home at Christmas you wally.’ She grabbed a strand of her fringe and twiddled it between her fingers. ‘Can I ask you something Dan? I know you’re not going to get upset and I don’t want you to. But do you remember last week when I was at yours and you were acting funny and the phone went.’
Dan nodded. He lit a cigarette and looked out the window.
I picked up the phone downstairs. You know this, don’t you? I wasn’t spying but I picked it up just as you picked it up.’
Dan took a drag on his cigarette and said, ‘It was a girl from my course. We’re doing a group presentation next month and we need to plan.’
Jane’s fingers trembled a little and she took her hands off the table and put them on her lap. She said, ‘She sounded foreign, Dan. What’s her name?’
‘Yes.’ Dan finished his cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray.
Jane took a sip of beer. ‘Why did she sound foreign?’
‘Because she’s Dutch.’
‘She’s called Rebecca and she’s Dutch.’
‘And she’s on your course, this Rebecca.’
‘You’ve never mentioned her.’
‘There are hundreds of people on my course.’ He looked at his fingers and began to count. ‘Have I told you about Jess? She’s in my language class. Then there’s Rob. He’s a nice guy. He’s in my modernism class. Did I tell you we went for a beer the other week? It was after a lecture. We got quite smashed actually. I could go on.’
Jane waited for him to finish. ‘Don’t be clever.’
‘Don’t be paranoid.’
‘That’s not fair, Dan. You know it’s not.’ She met his eyes and he looked away. ‘I put the phone down straight away. I wasn’t spying on you. But Rebecca sounded really excited. And the reason I don’t know her name is because…’ Her voice caught a little and she stopped.
Dan said, ‘I don’t think we should spend the evening like this. Do you want another drink?’
Jane took a deep breath, downed the rest of her beer and lit another cigarette. ‘No, you’re right. Let’s stop. I know I’m being paranoid. I know you don’t like me when I’m like this. I can’t help it really, not when you’re so far away.’ She blew smoke in his direction and smiled. ‘Your course is such bullshit. So much waffle.’
The sky had darkened with black clouds and it had started to rain. On the pavement, an old lady lifted an upturned palm to the sky. Dan said, ‘You’re not being paranoid. I should have explained last week. I knew you’d picked up the phone and I should have explained.’
‘Forget about it.’
‘It’s going to be fine,’
‘We have been good together, haven’t we?’ she went on. ‘And I want it to be good again.’
‘We’ll be fine. We always are.’
‘I’m terrible, I know. I’m horribly jealous.’ She laughed despite herself and tears filled her eyes.
‘Let’s go. We always fight when we’re drunk.’
They went outside. The rain bounced off the cobbled streets and into their shoes. It dripped from their hair and into their eyes. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Jane said. She twirled about in front of him, her face lifted to the sky. Dan took hold of her waist and pulled her towards him. Her hair smelt of peaches and cigarettes. A fork of lightning, then a low peal of thunder. The rain came heavier. They could barely see where they were going. ‘We’re going to drown,’ squealed Jane. She pulled herself free from his arm and ran towards the centre of the small square. Dan watched her dance and twirl. She looked very young and small.
When they got back to the room, they were tired and hungry and their clothes were soaked through. The two suitcases stood in the middle of the room. The crumpled poster lay on the desk, the feather boa was draped over the chair. There was the bed, the basin, a cupboard and a chest of drawers.
Jane opened the largest case. ‘I’ve of a bottle of Pimms in here,’ she said. ‘Grandma gave it to me as a leaving present. Can you believe it? I’ve never drunk Pimms in my life.’
They stripped out of their clothes and sat in their underwear on the bed. Jane made a makeshift ashtray out of a toothbrush holder they found by the sink. The rain had stopped and the dormitory was silent. They passed the bottle of Pimms between them until they felt sick.
Jane said, ‘It feels bloody lonely here, doesn’t it? Like we’re the only people on the planet.’ Dan nodded. He was circling his fingers over her cold feet. ‘It’s like the setting of a serial killer film. There’s probably some nutter stalking the hallway.’
She flexed her foot and poked his bare stomach. ‘You’re getting fat.’
‘You are, just a little. How are your arms? You were whinging about them all the way here.’
‘Those suitcases killed me. When you stood at the top of the stairs, shouting at me, my forearms unfurled like plasticine.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She laughed, put a hand to her mouth. ‘I can be so horrid, can’t I? But I thought we’d miss the train.’
He leaned forward and kissed her. She opened her mouth, then pulled away. ‘Do you want to finish this?’ She picked up the bottle. Some of the pink liquid spilled onto the mattress. ‘It’s gross, isn’t it?’
He took the bottle off her and took a swig. It made him gag. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ he said.
‘I want to talk.’
‘We’ve done too much talking.’
‘There’s one more thing, Dan. I’m only saying this because I’m drunk. Don’t think I’m being paranoid, but there’s one more thing.’
Dan put his fingers to her lips, kissed her again and rolled on top of her. She fell backwards with a squeal.
‘Wait,’ she said. ‘There is one more thing. When I picked up the phone…’
He was pushing down on her and trying to undo the clasp of her bra. ‘We’ll talk ourselves mad,’ he said. ‘No more tonight.’ Her bra came loose and he tossed it to the floor. She was very pale and cold.
‘It’s just what she said. When you picked up the phone and said hello, she said, ‘It’s me.’ Why would she say that Dan?’
‘I don’t know.’ He was looking at her sad eyes. ‘I don’t know why she’d say that.’
‘She’s just on your course right. You’re just doing a project together. So why should she announce herself as ‘me’.’
They slipped under the sheets. It had got so cold they shook in each other’s arms for a while. After a little while, Dan said, ‘I don’t know why she’d say that, Jane,’ but she had begun to snore. He stared at the peeling ceiling until he fell asleep.
When they woke, it was almost midday. Dan’s arm had gone numb under her weight. He pulled himself free and got out of bed. He splashed his face with water from the basin and pulled on a pair of jeans and a T shirt.
Jane sat up and twiddled her fringe between her fingers. She was naked and bleary-eyed. ‘Come back to bed,’ she said.
‘I’ve got a train to catch. I have to be there in an hour.’
‘Oh Dan, you’re so sensible. I’ll get dressed. God knows where the showers are in this prison.’
They caught the bus to the centre of town and walked to the station. It was a Monday and the streets were busy, the cafes were full. It was sunny but pools of water remained from the night’s downpour. They passed the little bar and the square where Jane had danced. Inside, they could see the barman, doing his crossword.
Near the station, they stopped for a coffee. Jane looked around her. The café was full of students, gossiping and eating and drinking. A man in one corner turned the pages of an enormous hardback novel. ‘I think I’ll be alright here,’ she said. ‘It’s not so bad in the day.’
‘You’ll be fine. You’ll make lots of friends.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, I think I will.’
At the station, Dan stood by the train carriage, his rucksack by his side. Jane smoked a cigarette and looked up at the station clock. ‘Tick, tock,’ she said. ‘I can really feel it this time.’
‘That we’re done.’
Dan looked at her feet and said nothing. She gripped his arm, pushed her head into his chest and closed her eyes. He held her but they did not speak. ‘We were 14,’ she eventually said.
‘Six years ago.’
‘Six years seems an awfully long time, doesn’t it?’ She pushed herself closer, clasped him with both hands.
‘In some ways.’
She pulled free from his chest and kissed him briefly on the lips. She said, ‘When I came to Durham last Easter, it was so strange. I hardly recognized you. You were so different. Not in a bad way, not at all in a bad way. But I left feeling very lonely.’
‘I haven’t changed,’ Dan said. He looked at his watch. ‘I have to go.’
‘There was nothing we could have done about it really, is there?’
‘We’re working at it Jane.’
‘I’m not sure there was anything we could have done. It just happens all the bloody time. It’s quite mundane really.’
Dan picked up his rucksack. ‘I wish you wouldn’t talk like this.’
Jane planted a kiss on his cheek and stepped back. ‘Get on the train, Dan, before I start blubbing.’
They embraced on the platform until the whistle blew.
‘Don’t forget, Dan,’ she said, as he opened the automatic door and stepped into the carriage. She touched his hand just before the doors closed. ‘Not even when you’re old and impotent.’
Dan waved as the train pulled away. He watched the small figure in a pink leather jacket recede into the distance, waving back.
He saw her throw her cigarette to the floor and immediately scrabble for another. He saw her struggling to light it in the wind.
My love of writing came from the Beat generation. I remember ploughing through Kerouac, Burroughs, Bukowski and Ginsberg while putting my dissertation together at uni. Back then, I wrote poor imitations of free-flowing stream of consciousness that were as lengthy as they were unreadable. Recently, I have been reading DH Lawrence and I have been overwhelmed with the totally bonkers but brilliant intensity of those novels. They are flawed but stunning achievements. My own style is inspired by a sparse social realism and a minimalist style, along the lines or Raymond Carver or Richard Yates. I love Elmore Leonard’s advice: If it looks like writing, rewrite it. It’s a far cry from my attempts to recreate On the Road. A tip would be the American scientist turned writer, Richard Powers. His novels have incredible scope and intellectual power. Start with The Echo Maker, also try The Time of Our Singing, Generosity and Plowing the Dark. John Updike’s Couples is one of my favourite novels, so too Don De Lillo’s Libra, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, The Human Stain. I also love Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses trilogy and Richard Yates’ novel The Easter Parade.
Pete Sherlock studied English and Creative Writing at Birmingham University. From there, he pursued a career in journalism and put aside fiction writing for a while, but now has refound his mojo and has begun sending short stories for publication. He has also self-published a novel on Amazon Kindle called Promise, a dark tale about an obsessive relationship between two teenage boys set over a long hot summer before they head to university. He still works in online journalism and lives in east London, a stone’s throw from the Olympic Park in Bow.