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Harry Lowther

I’m in and out as I climb the steps, and before I know it he’s there, waiting above me, fuzzy-eyed in a dressing gown.

‘Conor!’ I greet him.

He gestures to me to keep it down.

‘I’m just welcoming you, Conor.’

‘Welcoming me to what? Come on, get in. Neighbours will be sleeping.’ He’s projecting a whisper that comes out like a hiss.

I squeeze by him, brushing the wall, where I hang as he locks back up.

‘What are you drinking?’ I ask.

‘I’m not drinking anything. It’s a Wednesday night. You said no later than 10.’

‘Alright, what do you have to drink, then?’

‘There’s water in the tap.’ He looks at his phone for a second, and rubs his eye. ‘And a couple of beers in the fridge.’

‘You’re a good man. Should’ve been out tonight.’

‘Come on, I’ve got the airbed up in the living room for you.’

‘A good man. Should’ve been out, where were you?’

‘I told you, it’s a Wednesday night. Make sure you’re getting some of that water down you too, if you’re opening that beer. What happened to Andre, anyway?’

He puts on a side light, and a corner of the living room brightens.

‘Ah, he’s off somewhere else. I stayed out talking to these two girls from the Faroe Islands. One of them absolutely hated me. Have you ever met anyone from the Faroe Islands?’

He says he has not as he hands me a chunky glass of water, and we sit down on the sofa, in front of the airbed which now fills the room. A scratching noise is coming from somewhere.

‘Lovely people. Lovely. What about some tunes?’

I’m sure I recall petting a dog on the way here. Had it been on its own?

‘It’s a bit late.’ He takes his phone back out. Opens a message, reads it, and puts it away again. I don’t see who it’s from.

He asks if I’ve spoken to her. I tell him, no, I haven’t. Thinking of something else.

‘Do you remember the time,’ I ask, ‘we were at that festival and you fell asleep in the wrong tent? We were all wondering where the hell you’d gone off to.’

Conor closes his eyes and laughs, his head rocking back. ‘Man, by the time they found me it was so close to morning that I just got up and got back on it. Barely saw my own tent all weekend.’ Then he pushes himself up and out of the sofa, returning a minute later with the two beers, two cold, yellow cans, and we touch them together before pulling the rings. ‘Man, I don’t think I could do that anymore. Student days, weren’t they?’

‘We should get something organised.’

‘By the way,’ he continues, ‘I met up with Fiona the other day.’

‘Oh right. What’s the latest there, then?’

‘Well, she didn’t say anything about it, but no sign of a baby, obviously. And she’s got her own place now, on her own. I mean, I didn’t want to ask.’

Of course, years back, they had had their own thing. It hadn’t worked.

‘Well, if Liam’s out of the picture, that’s the main thing. He was a real bit of nothing, nothing going on.’

‘Yeah, I don’t think he’s fully out yet, but he’s being pushed away. God knows where he’s staying, he can’t pay rent.’

‘Good riddance to the bastard. I still can’t believe they didn’t invite me to the wedding.’

I wake up on the sofa, shivering. I’m in my clothes, the airbed looking crestfallen on the floor in front of me, and my mouth is dry and bitter.

From somewhere in the room I can hear the scratching again. It sounds like there’s something alive in here.

I peel myself from the sofa and get used to standing up again. It keeps getting harder. My neck is stiff and my head doesn’t want to hold itself up. Scratching. I find it, after a few moments, coming from behind the airbed. A cage on the floor, and peering out from behind the bars a little white mouse is standing on its hind legs. Looking for me.

I ask him what he’s doing here and he responds by twitching his nose.

Conor comes in and hands me a hot black coffee, steam still rising from it.

‘Thought I heard you stirring through here. You’ve met Fernando, I see.’

‘Cheers, I owe you one. Where’d you get him from?’

‘Oh, he’s a rescue mouse. Poor guy has probably seen some things. They all come riddled with tumours, it’s really sad.’

I don’t ask where you rescue a mouse from.

‘Listen, I’m technically at work at the moment, but hang around as long as you need to. I don’t know if you’ve got any plans today or anything. Sorry that I’m busy, I’ve got a meeting at 10 that I have to be at, but I’ll just be in the bedroom.’

I don’t have any plans. I have things to do, but no plans.

‘Cheers, Conor. I should start feeling human again in a bit. I hope I wasn’t disturbing you too much last night.’

‘Disturbing?’ he laughs. ‘Mate, you’re just disturbed. What were you doing in such a state on a weeknight?’

‘Ah. Well, you know. Just to be out with people. To be around people and not feel so much like you’re yourself. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t really know what happened, it just did.’ I laugh. Acid is rising from my stomach.

‘Mmm. Best get out of that self-reflective mood, it’s bad for the hangover.’

And I laugh again and I gratefully burn my lips sipping the coffee as he heads back to the work station beside his bed.

‘Fernando,’ I say, ‘what are your plans?’

He looks back at me like he understands his name.

I throw the coffee back up into Conor’s toilet, caramel brown swirls as it mixes with the toilet water and fibrous strands of god-knows-what swimming round and round. Then I sit on the floor, sweating, leaning on the toilet seat and absently scroll through an app, seeing nothing, feeling sandpaper on the back of my throat. I was probably smoking last night.

After a time, I feel well enough to get back up and leave the bathroom.

I clean out Conor’s cafetière and put more coffee on, finding some Colombian single-origin stuff in the top cupboard. While it’s percolating I clean myself up a little, splashing water into my red eyes, squeezing some of his toothpaste out into my hand then rinsing it round my mouth. I spray some of Conor’s deodorant and wince at the cold on my armpits. He smells like a teenager. Then I go back to the kitchen, press the handle down, and pour two cups. A sip of the boiling coffee this time makes me feel alive again.

I push open Conor’s door to see him in a buttoned-up white shirt and purple joggers at the desk that appeared in there a couple of years ago. He doesn’t break from his conversation at the screen as the door opens, but gives me a sidelong, wide-eyed look as I enter and approach with the hot drink. I realise that it’s after 10 just as I slide the drink onto his desk, avoiding the screen but impossible not to glance at it, and I see dozens and dozens of tiny faces looking back at me. As I open my mouth to apologize to Conor, the sip of hot coffee comes back on me, as it’s then pushed out by the remainder of last night’s alcohol, and out and across the keyboard.

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