The things taken, the things left behind
Some nights, you lie awake and think about those times, about how the things which happened to you back then can become more like stories written by strangers. You only lived in that flat for six months, and you’d already been there too long by the time the man moved in next door.
He had a girl with him. Not young enough to be his daughter, but young all the same. You could hear them through the walls. Sometimes they fought, but most nights the noises you heard weren’t fighting.
One afternoon you saw him in the stairwell, and he said to you, “Come over sometime, man.” He was smiling, shifting from foot to foot like a boxer. He said, “You smoke weed, right?” and he laughed, moving past you up the stairs.
You only went because you’d seen her shoes outside of their door. You couldn’t imagine why anyone living in a communal block would leave their shoes right there for everyone to see, but there they were most mornings, kitten-heeled, powder-blue and scuffed to shit. You couldn’t work out what it was you felt when you thought about those shoes, but it was something.
Their place was like yours. One room. A box big enough to fit a life inside, but not two. The girl had tried to make it nice – curtains, postcards of flowers – but there were stains on the wall, burns in the carpet.
“Here,” he said, and he handed you a can of lager. “Don’t say I’m not the hospitable type.”
She was sitting on the couch, her legs pulled up under her so that her white cotton dress stretched tight over her knees. In the corner of the room, their bed was unmade, her blue nightdress lying on the pillow.
You were standing with the man near the fridge and he said, “You want a smoke?” He smiled and took a jar from the side of the sink. It was about half-full of weed. He took it over to the bed, sat down and started building a joint.
You looked over at the girl, said, “So, you like it here?” and she turned to you, smiled, and then just turned back to the television.
“Julia don’t talk much,” said the man, not looking up from his work.
You took a swig from your can. “You both working?”
“Not Julia,” he said. “I get her what she needs.”
He twisted the end of the joint with a flourish. “We get by,” he said, and he passed it to you. “Here. Be my guest.”
Later, when you thought about what happened, you couldn’t remember Julia moving to the bed with him. But you could remember them kissing, his hand on her leg while you sat on the floor and rolled another joint with his weed, and as you lit it, took a drag, they both looked at you, smiling, and he moved his hand further up her leg, her thigh, showing you the white of her skin, the taut tendons behind her knee.
“What do you think?” he said. “She’s a princess, right?”
She was smiling at you, and her toes were moving slowly in a kind of rhythm.
“How come you leave those shoes outside your door?” you said.
The man laughed. “Man, those shoes stink!” he said. “There’s nothing worse than the smell of a woman’s shoes when you’re trying to sleep.”
You looked at the girl. “You got really beautiful feet.”
“You like them?” she said, and she kept wiggling her toes, watching them.
He said, “You know what I do? Every night, I wash those feet of hers. Soap and warm water.” He held his hand out for the joint and you passed it to him. “I get right in between those toes. Make ‘em smell like the feet of an angel. And then every morning, she gets up and she puts those stinking blue shoes right back on.” He started to laugh, handed Julia the joint, and as she took it from him he kissed her on the cheek.
“Why don’t you buy her some new shoes?”
“Tried it,” he said. “Tried all kinds of shoes.”
Julia blew smoke in a long, thin line, and then she looked at you. “I really like those shoes. Those shoes are the most comfortablist shoes I ever wore.”
“Most comfortablist!” he said, laughing, and he grabbed her face, looked at you, held her chin between his thick fingers. “She’s a princess! Don’t you just want to kiss her?”
It was hard to smile at him but you did, until he said, “Well, what you waiting for?”
It wasn’t his words that did it.
It was the way she moved over on the bed to make room for you.
In the days afterwards, you didn’t see either of them. But you saw her shoes each morning, outside of the door. You’d never caught the smell of them before, but you held your breath anyway as you headed past them and down the stairs.
On the Thursday, you heard him shouting, but you couldn’t hear what he was saying. After a while he stopped, but later when you were trying to sleep, you could hear both of them, those noises they made.
On the Saturday, when you came home, her shoes weren’t there anymore, and your lock was bust, your door wide open.
They hadn’t taken much. A pillow, a lamp made from a wine bottle, some books, an old radio. You’d left some coins on the table, and they’d taken them as well, and as you walked around checking on things it felt as if you’d never set foot in the flat before, as if the things they’d taken and the things they’d left behind weren’t even yours, and had never been yours at all.
Jason Jackson writes short fiction and poetry. He also takes photographs. He hopes to find the time in a busy life to get better at all three. Find links to his published work at jjfiction.wordpress.com Jason tweets at jj_fiction