You reach a point when you realise it isn’t important whether there was a floor or a bed or even a sofa. What’s important is that there was a girl and you didn’t save her.
Becky French was her name. You were in the same class. In the summer of ‘94 you stayed at hers for the weekend. Your parents were in Spain staying with friends and you hadn’t wanted to go because at fourteen you felt too old for family holidays.
The bed was a double. You were on the left and Becky was on the right. You were used to sleeping with her by then – friendships were forged fast and hard in the upper-fourths. You had the same pencil case, the same body spray, the same stupid catchphrase from a sketch show on Friday night TV. You drank kiwi-flavoured 20/20 together in the local park until you threw up. Sometimes your leg touched hers during the night and you moved it. Sometimes you didn’t. The night of the incident you woke in the dark without knowing why, your senses scrambling for a reason; a sound? A sensation? Nothing. The room was quiet and dark and still. A dream, then. Must have been. You exhaled at the thought of the pretty word: dream. Scalloped like a cloud. A dream, that was all. It had pushed you forward and out and left you sweating. But then – you noticed that there was a light on your left, coming from the floor. Not so much a light as a glow…
You dismissed it. Shook your head. Squeezed your eyes shut. You had seen too many horror films. You were also too curious. You unclenched your eyelids. Peeked.
There it was, still. A low light, rising.
Oh god. Oh, Jesus and everything. Don’t be a demon, don’t be a demon, don’t be a demon.
You looked across the bed for Becky – she wasn’t there. The duvet was flat and grey and lifeless on her side. Had she gone to the toilet? You waited for the flush. You waited and waited. No flush came.
The glow remained. You lay there, wondering what it was and what to do, peeking at where the floor should be and watching the shifting translucent panes of tiny stones you always saw when you stared at the dark. They slid over each other. It was like looking at a photo that had sunk to the bottom of a lake.
Now look at this:
You turned your head slowly, trying not to let your hair static-crackle on the pillow. You felt for the edge of the bed with your right hand, rolled over and pulled yourself to the edge of the mattress with your fingertips and then you
because the floor had gone.
Like, completely gone.
And you could see the lounge all the lounge and the sofa and the TV flickering and the sofa and the carpet and the lamp on and the sofa and the coffee table with a beer can on it and the sofa and the sofa and the sofa and and and she was staring at you. You felt the scream gather in your stomach and move up your gullet. You swallowed it like a ball of vomit. You stared for seconds, minutes, hours, decades, and then you broke her stare and rolled back onto your back. Lay still and felt the length of your body against the sheet, against the mattress, all there. You put one hand down the neck of your nightie and the other down your knickers to comfort yourself. You slept.
When you woke, Becky was back next to you in bed.
‘Do you want to get a McDonalds breakfast?’
You got off the bed on her side and there was a floor and both of your clothes and shoes were strewn across it. You dressed silently and walked downstairs. There was no one else in the house. As the front door closed you knew you would never go back. (Sometimes when you’re lying in bed, spinning, you think about that staircase; the way it looked from the bottom – the image comes and quivers in your mind, staying just that little bit too long like the Palmer Family staircase, the whole godless universe screaming in the millisecond before it flicks to black.)
She bought a bacon roll and two hash browns. You bought a cup of tea.
‘Becky,’ you said.
She widened her eyes as she chewed. Shrugged. What?
‘I thought I saw through the floor last night. Into the living room.’
Time and space and the bacon roll were suspended for a second. Then she threw down the roll and punched you square in the jaw, her knuckle striking your jawbone with a dull crack. You had never been punched before or hit on the face by anyone and the sensation was ice-cold at first and then it burned and your mouth was full of steel. You looked around to see whether anyone had seen. She picked up her roll and took a bite.
‘You’re fucking mad,’ she said. ‘Everyone says so.’
You stood up but you did not follow her. You don’t remember walking to the toilets but the next thing you knew you were being held by two men in baseball caps and there was a smashed mirror in front of you and a piece of it in your hand.
Your parents flew home that night. This isn’t right, your father kept saying, his blood bubbling, out of his depth. But you knew they always thought you were a bit that way. He’d seen it in your eyes, that 13.8-billion-year stare, back to before time and light and everything. Your mother didn’t want to see it. She’d had enough darkness from her father, your grandfather, who was a Scot and a ship’s cook during the war. The things he’d heard. The things he’d heard.
You didn’t tell them. Didn’t want the fuss. Any more fuss. Exams were stressful. Adolescence was stressful. Nothing seemed to have got any less stressful.
Mr French is dead now. You saw it in the paper.
Therapy was an option, of course. But would bringing it up make it go away, or would it just lie there in the dark more often looking at you? You weren’t sure. You’d almost told a boyfriend once, got close, felt the story rising after dinner, wine, whisky – but by the time it reached your mouth it was just wind. He looked at you repulsed, and you knew that if he couldn’t handle that, then… Well.
Other conversations, with your grown-up friends. You knew your heart, sadly. You knew it. The theory was all too easy. It was A-levels all over again. Because when there was a decision to be made you failed and continue to fail. Last weekend you were at a wedding, two bottles of wine in front of you, one better than the other, you were enjoying the better one (bon viveur-dom has claimed you, however proudly you might pencil your crosses in the liberal boxes) and the woman next to you asked you to pass the wine please and you, wedding-drunken YOU – you didn’t think but you also did think in that you had already made the decision, it was you being as honest as you could, you the animal, the creature, passed her the cheaper bottle. You crucified yourself the next day with it; lashed yourself with mean, selfish, greedy; everything you professed to despise and condemn – but it was too late. And it was a bottle of wine. A foot of nothing. It was everything, though, about you. In vino veritas. Not even your wit could cheer you. In for a penny. In for a penny. For pence. The cheapening of it all, the circularity. You possess the currency of politeness but you know, deep down, you are bankrupt and you always have been. Thanks to that. To her. To him. Silence isn’t always silence. Sometimes it is a word not being said. Sometimes, you can hear it.
Sometimes you wish it had been you. Take me instead, as they say in the films. But each time you think it you are forced to admit that you are only thinking it on the off-chance that there is actually a God and he can hear your thoughts. You are kind when you are sober because you know that it is important to be kind.
And what about that floor? Sometimes you wake up around three or four and feel the heat rising from the side of the bed and see the low glow and close your eyes and roll towards your lover because you know, just know, that if you lean over and look over the edge you will see further than the living room, the sticky glasses, the sunk chairs, the cat curled like an ammonite on the ottoman – none of this… You will see instead jagged layers stretching away and down to the very essence of your regret and then, at the bottom, no bigger than a doll, him looking up and waving (him, of course him, who else?), wearing his What took you so long? face.
You reach a point when you realise it isn’t important whether there is a floor or a bed or even a sofa. What’s important is that there is a girl and you don’t save her.
© Emma Jane Unsworth