SET TIMES | Rachel Belward’s short story slips into the territory of the uncanny.
by Rachel Belward
You’re awake at weird hours. Its 20:45 for me. Why aren’t you sleeping?
I don’t know.
Honest answer, if a bit abrupt. Blue ticks. She’s scrunched up in a corner of the small sofa, in a corner of the small living room. She can’t decide whether the 04:45, only-slightly-muted world beyond the window looks beautiful or really, really ugly. Her eyes are stinging a bit, and when she rubs them red and lilac ribbons dance behind the lids and she tries to see the sunset and palm trees where he is.
She feels the need to add something. Keep up the momentum of the messages.
You know I’m not good at sleeping sometimes. I’m in the living room. I don’t want to wake up Drew.
Even his name is soft; his kindness and passivity make her feel empty when she knows they should fill her up. Well, the kindness should, at least. But she doesn’t want it. He sleeps like a stone figure on top of a tomb and she feels something like hate for him.
I forgot you two moved in together. Are you still smoking?
He’s typing something, stopping, and then starting again. She pictures the words bubbling and coalescing and disappearing. She can almost feel them somewhere in her bloodstream, passing under her wrists and around her neck and into the meat of her.
No. I quit while we were together, remember?
She hesitates to be so explicit, but her fingers slide across the cracked screen with only the tiniest glassy resistance reminding her that she is, in fact, typing. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep. Maybe it’s not actually hearing his voice. But she feels emboldened and blurry.
What about you?
Sometimes. But vaping is more normal here. And sometimes everyone in the band clubs together and we get a bulk dispensary order. But it isn’t your problem any more, is it?
She can’t tell whether he’s being defensive or flirting with her.
I only asked because I almost felt like a cigarette.
Los Angeles is a bit far away for me to offer you one.
I know. Whatever. I should go to bed.
New song title.
Write it and I’ll get a tattoo.
Sleep. We’re on in about an hour. I need to go and run through the set.
I don’t need it. But thanks. X
* * *
They only ever spoke at strange, liminal times. When the rest of her life wasn’t really there.
Drew would worry about her coffee intake and ask her gentle questions about her workday ahead. At her desk she watched Jack’s Instagram stories over and over and chewed her nails into nothing. He sometimes sent her pictures of his new life. Beaches. Trips to see the redwoods. Gigs at wealthy techbros’ and producers’ places in the hills. Glittering pools. Dive bars in the valley. She knew it was a highlights reel. She reciprocated with little things she knew he missed about London, but they felt very lame by comparison. A clean tube carriage. Crunchy leaves underfoot. Sometimes he sent more flippant, openly flirtatious messages.
We’re playing at The Satellite tonight. Set starts at 9pm sharp. See you there? You can crash at my place after.
‘Do you want some of this?’ Drew was making stir-fry when she got home. She kicked off her shoes and nodded.
She was so tired. All the time.
‘I’m going for drinks with the boys. They asked if you wanted to come, too.’
She swallowed. He had used too much soy sauce in place of any other kinds of flavours.
‘No thanks. I’ll see you when you’re back, though.’
* * *
“They only ever spoke at strange, liminal times. When the rest of her life wasn’t really there.”
It was the kind of pub he would have played at with one of his succession of bands, for next to nothing once you factored in petrol. Once upon a time she would have been terrified to come here alone. Not that she would have been there alone. There would have been drink coupons waiting for her backstage. Maybe even some chips.
Instead she walked straight up to the bar and, unsmiling, ordered a pint. It was a bit warm. She drank it too quickly.
An Australian dreampop duo were launching their EP. They weren’t bad, but their music was soft and gentle. The crowd swayed together and raised their phones in unison. Under their light, their faces were either too-serious or earnestly beaming. There was one song they all seemed to know already, and they sang along, but not so loudly as to drown out the act themselves. Who both had the same haircut. The lyrics were about feeling left behind, and she wanted to scream.
Being left behind isn’t fuzzy. It’s fully distorted and raw.
Or maybe they were right. Everything in her life now was too soft and too gentle, and she didn’t understand how it had happened so insidiously.
The headliners took the stage. She hadn’t paid much attention to their name or the line-up. She had just wanted to be in a crowd, and since she’d likely be awake anyway, have her ears ringing from feedback. Feel the drumbeats somewhere in her neck.
Throughout the headliners’ set, she stood frozen on the fringes. It wasn’t possible. His arms moved a lot less fluidly than Jack’s. There was a slightly jagged way he lifted the drumsticks into the air that didn’t look quite like him, but the resemblance made her breath catch in her throat. She scrambled into the bathroom and reapplied her lipstick, staring at herself briefly. A girl asked if she was okay, and she just nodded. She looked normal, if a little blurry. She thought about how tired she was, again, and the word ‘uncanny’ floated up from somewhere in her head before she pushed it away. Into the bin with the toilet roll she used to blot.
As their set came to a close, she edged to the side of the stage, squeezing through tight-knit clusters of perfume and glossy hair. It was only as she got closer that she realised she had no idea what to say to him.
He met her wide eyes, and she could feel her own pulse at the base of her throat. She could smell him; in spite of her shock, she cringed at how she remembered the smell of his sweat. But there was something else. Something sweet and sour under the smell of beer, almost like rotting leaves.
‘Jack? What the hell?’
She started to laugh, but couldn’t hold her voice together; she could almost hear it falling in sad wet clumps onto the sticky floor around them. The hurt and incredulity sounded so obvious to her that she knew it must be ringing loud and clear for him, even in their thumping subterranean setting.
She reached out to touch him; his skin looked almost waxy. With a greenish sheen. His face was framed by his usual slightly curly dark blond hair but it looked flatter, somehow. Knowing Jack, he likely hadn’t slept much lately. And he’d probably been drinking heavily for days. And they were under blue lights. And he’d just come off stage.
A tiny expression flickered across his face, passing like a current through his eyebrows and along the planes of his cheeks. Faintly embarrassed, but mostly blank. Her hand stayed extended for a second too long before falling limply by her side.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were flying back over?’ The question pushed itself through her teeth even as she wanted to swallow it back down, deep into her belly, to swill around with the too-warm beer.
He blinked. Slowly. She noticed he was standing really still. Unnaturally so, for the fidget she remembered. He was always twisting bony fingers into his hair, into her hair, into the air percussively. Snapping and bending and popping like strobe lights.
‘I’m really sorry. I think you’ve got the wrong person.’
The stink of dry ice soaked into the curtains of her hair and caught in the back of her throat. She could feel her stomach churning. She’d definitely had too much to drink. But this time, she laughed properly.
‘You’re hilarious as ever, Jack.’
He threw her a look that was something like pity. She could feel panic shimmering somewhere under her collarbones. She glanced down. Her shirt was sticking to her.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again, and his voice sounded different. Deeper? Hollower? He started to turn away, and she blinked, rubbing her eyes with both fists like an exhausted child. His skin looked almost too smooth. She suddenly felt so old.
She pulled her phone from her pocket. What time would it be for him? About 14:30?
How’s your afternoon going?
He didn’t reply as quickly as he usually did. Or maybe she was just imagining a delay. She felt the swirls of people passing around her. She suddenly really wanted another drink.
All good. $1 tacos. Can’t complain. It’s late with you! Actually, kind of early for the hours you keep.
Not-Jack was at the bar, with his back to her. Still bizarrely slow, considering he should be filled with post-show buzz. Or at least tired and floppy.
His hand was at the breast pocket of his artfully faded denim jacket, and she couldn’t tell whether he was taking out his cigarettes, or putting away his phone.