Gone Midnight

Helen rubbed fretfully at her bleary eyes.  She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.  It took an age for anyone to answer, she had to ring three times before the neighbours’ younger son, Matt, pulled the door open.  He was laughing, turned slightly away, to speak to someone behind him, and he still had a big grin on his face as he focussed in on Helen, on his doorstep, Paul’s duffle coat pulled round her pyjamas.

For a half beat Helen thought about apologising, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

“Any chance you could turn the music down now?” She shouted, wanting to be sure he could hear over the incessant thrum of Slade’s So here it is

The grin slipped away. The shoulders hunched.  It’s alright, Helen thought, he knows me, he won’t turn nasty, but she wasn’t quite sure.  She waited.

“Sure”, he said, glancing at his watch, “it is nearly midnight, isn’t it.”

“Right.”  Helen turned to go, obviously there wasn’t going to be an actual apology.  The door shut behind her with no appreciable lessening of racket.

She slopped in her slippers down her neighbour’s tiled path, out onto the pavement, and up her own flagged steps.  She put her hand into Paul’s deep pocket and for a moment there was no key. Panic leapt, then stilled. Of course the key was there.  She let herself in and went to the kitchen for a glass of water and some painkillers.  She dropped the duffel coat over the banisters and headed back up to bed.  The music next door stopped abruptly.  She sighed happily as she pulled the duvet over her, and then frowned again as the babel of voices and laughter rose, someone was shouting, persistently and insistently, although she couldn’t make out what exactly.  She realised sluggishly that they were out in the garden. More than just the knot of smokers on the patio, the entire group of partyers were out trampling Mrs Henry’s herb parterre and pocking her lawn with stilettos.  There was an expansive whoosh, and then a fizzing and a popping and then finally an ear shaking crash.

Not fair, Helen whimpered, as next-door oohed and giggled and sighed and shrieked as firework after firework screamed and boomed and crackled.  She threw back the duvet and went through to the back bedroom; she might as well enjoy the display. She arrived at the window for the finale, a cocktail of mixed rockets, a barrage of Catherine wheels and a cascade of roman candles.

What that must have cost, she thought, then flinched as a miss-fired rocket ricocheted off the window frame beside her.  The gasps of horrified delight from next-door alerted her to the fact her neighbours and their guests were staring at her.  She nodded politely and pulled the curtains quickly.

Gone midnight… and Paul still not back.  No reason to fret.  She checked her mobile.  No message.  She sent a quick message.

R u ok? Cd join you awake anyway. Xx H

Awake indeed, the music next door had resumed, and there were loud voices in the front garden now; perhaps that meant that some of them were leaving.

Gone midnight, that made it Christmas.  Helen stared at her tousled bed, and sighed.  She pulled clothes on, switched the central heating and hot water onto constant and went down to the kitchen.  She could get the turkey into the oven, Paul would be starving when he got back; they could have lunch for breakfast, if he wanted.  She found a glass in her hand almost without thinking.  She always had a glass of sherry when cooking Christmas dinner; what did it matter if it was … she focussed on the clock twenty to one?  Everything was on its head tonight; everything would just happen twelve hours early.  The plates in her glass fronted cupboard were shaking with the beat of whatever they were playing at number twenty two.  If she wasn’t so tired… well, never mind, the turkey was stuffed and the oven up to heat.  She looked at the clock again, this is possibly rather silly, she thought, and shut the door on the bird.  She collected potatoes and peeled them, and put water to boil.

The doorbell went, long and insistent, as though it had been rung once or possibly twice already and not been heard.  She was sure she would have heard, despite the racket from next door – back to Slade again, Mama we’re all crazee now… good God, Matt must actually like them.

Helen went to the door and flung it open, expecting Paul. Not Paul. Matt.  Matt: with two cocktail glasses, both about half full of something in multi-coloured layers.

“Come to apologise,” he said breezily, stepping through her too open door and kicking it shut behind him.  He walked into the kitchen.  Helen followed.

“Saw your light on, knew you were up; sorry, thought you should come and join in the party.”

“It’s not the best time.”

“Christmas? Not the best time?  That’s ridiculous.”

“Paul’s mother is in hospital.”

“Ah, so that’s why you’re on your own.”

“So it’s a bit worrying and …”

“Well if Paul’s with her, nothing for you to worry about; come and join us, Dad says you are a great dancer.”

“Ballet,” Helen said, “and I’m retired, almost.”  Wondering when Matt and his father had had that conversation and turned the boiling water off.

Matt pushed the cocktail into her hand.

“Fabulosa,” he said grinning, “Did you enjoy the fireworks?”

“Spectacular: especially the one that nearly broke the window.”

“Sorry, again.  I’m overworking that word aren’t I?”

“Mm.  A tad.”  Helen took a sip of the cocktail. It was stunningly good.  She gasped.  Matt’s grin widened.

“There’s more next door.”

Helen glanced down at her apron, yesterday’s jeans and stale sweater – no knickers she thought briefly.  She looked at Matt’s torn kneed combats and faded t-shirt.  If anything she was over dressed.  She took another sip.

“Well, maybe for an hour?”

She wrote a note for Paul, and tucked it under the flap of the letter box.

Couldn’t sleep, I’m next door, knock if you don’t have your key, otherwise pls baste turkey and come round.

It was only after she’d slammed the door that she realised her key was still in Paul’s coat pocket.

© Cherry Potts 2011 read at Liars’ league Leeds 2011

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