One midnight to minute

A story from a sleep-deprived mind, written very late at night.

Maybe it was the atmosphere. I don’t know. It might have been the fact that I had not slept in two days. Whatever it was, I was drawn to her. The mighty clock upon the old tower crept slowly towards midnight and for some reason I longed for this hour to be over, as if surpassing midnight would liberate me somehow, while currently my mind was telling me I ought to go to bed, sleep, and hopefully get a grip on life sometime soon. In my old, brown fleece I had assumed to be made out of authentic sheep’s wool for two years before I looked at the label, I stood under the tower, staring at the watch hands. As of right now I was the definition of sleep deprived. My head was so heavy; it felt like it could roll off my shoulders any second. Yet my feet, my knees especially, signaled that I was about to float away. My thoughts sounded slow and were told to me in a voice far deeper than mine. They seemed distant and as if they were about to ascend from my head to leave me forever, leaving my mind as an empty casket, eyes fixed on an old clock.

The worst thing was that I had no idea what was keeping me awake. I would convince myself that I was tired – which I was – and that I would fall fast asleep when I got into bed, but every time I lay down, closed my eyes, I was wide awake. I was certain that something was wrong with me. Simultaneously I knew that at one point or another my body would do what was necessary and send me to sleep. All I had to do now was to wait for that moment to arrive. In the background I heard someone playing the piano. It was a piece I didn’t know, which wasn’t surprising since I knew as much about classical music as anyone. But the pianist played beautifully, as if trying to fight the icy cold with a warm melody.

The minute hand moved to the fifty-ninth mark, pulling the hour hand with it just the slightest, but enough to raise the tension. Now I watched the second hand, which took it’s time for every second. I waited. I waited for liberation. My sight blurred for a second, my knees threatened to give up on my body. I sunk my head into my hands for a moment.

It was when I looked up that I saw her.

Sitting on the sidewalk like a teenager, dressed in a black, slim coat, dark hair pinned into a beautiful formal bun, piercing, dark brown eyes gazing into the distance as she listened to the pianist. In her left hand she held a bottle of white wine; in her right she elegantly swayed a glass, slowly, possibly to the rhythm of the music. Absently, she took a sip of her wine. In my fascination, I didn’t notice the minute end. I took a deep breath, the hour hand moved heavily, loudly, as she topped up her wine glass with the precision of a trained waitress. As the pianist let his gloved fingers glide over the keys, I stood there, mesmerized. She wore black, satin heels, tights on her legs, rings on her fingers, full lips and a slightly red nose from the cold, just like her knuckles and ears. I moved towards her, sitting down on the sidewalk next to her and shared her view on the pianist. I wondered how he might have dragged it all the way here. The woman took another sip of her wine. She was young like me. But in her formal attire she seemed much older. By now she’d turned to face me and when I caught her eye I just smiled and looked back at the pianist. We remained that way. For at least another hour, we sat there, gazing towards the music and me stealing a glance to her side from time to time. I felt awake now. Very awake. There was not a single thought that reminded me of my bed, of closing my eyes. I felt like I could stay there all night, sitting next to this woman who had by now finished her bottle of wine, listening to the music, watching other insomniacs pass us by. There was something so soothing about spending time outside at night. Even though I was out in the open, I felt like this was my secret safe haven, because anybody with the authority to send me back to bed was too serious and sensible to be awake at this hour.

The clouds, lit by the streetlights, were a cover to me, a shelter from anything that might destroy this moment. But something did destroy the moment. At one point we saw a man, a colourful, light-reflective vest go up to the pianist. The concert was over. The view listeners such as the woman and I clapped mildly. Then the pianist packed up his things and began pulling the piano down the streets.

Through the silence, I heard the woman sigh. “They always ruin it sooner or later.” She stated in a low, melancholic voice. The she’d said “sooner” made me think she was possibly drunk, but no wonder after one bottle of wine and maybe more. I turned to look at her, she caught my eye.

“I’m Noelle.” I said hastily. She smiled at me and set down her wine glass. It had tiny gems worked into the bottom.

“What time is it, Noelle?” I glanced at the clock.

“Approximately half past one.” I said, though it was closer to one than half past. She was silent for a moment, apparently considering what I’d just told her.

“How come you’re not sleeping?” she then asked.

“I’m an insomniac.”

“I can tell.”

“What about you?”

She felt the back of her bun as if to check it was still in order. “I was at a gala tonight. They served wonderful food and expensive wine.” She explained. “But everybody went home so early, I didn’t want the night to be over. It turns out though; this street musician becomes the wildest party in town when it’s gone eleven.” I nodded. “Not much happens here.” She stood up and brushed the night off her clothes. She looked at me. “Do you live close-by?” I nodded again and she held out her hand, I automatically took it. “Show me.” Hand in hand we walked up the street and around the corner. And it hurt a little when I had to let go so I could retrieve my keys. Upstairs she took off her coat and lay it across my sofa. I lived in a very small apartment with a very small living area, very small kitchen, and bedroom. The only thing that seemed proportionally large was the bathroom. I took off my shoes and coat. She was wearing a dark blue dress, a perfect fit. “Do you want a drink?”

“Champagne.” She let her hair down, wavy and dark. “Umm – I don’t have champagne.”

“What do you have then?”

And that was the beginning of the biggest party for two I’d ever experienced. She emptied my entire fridge and created culinary masterpieces, always nipping at a glass of red wine she’d found in the back of one my cupboards. We ate and drank and I didn’t even care if I had never been this drunk before. The next morning arrived like a blow to the head. Hard and headachy. Also, as I searched my apartment, I realised three things: she was gone, she was still nameless to me and finally, I had slept. I found a note in my messy, yet empty kitchen in a handwriting I didn’t recognise. You were out of food, so I left. No signature, but I knew it was from her. After downing a couple of painkillers and a cup of coffee, I started to clean up. I made my way through the apartment, collecting the evidence of the drunken mess we’d created a few hours earlier.

Among empty bottles and cracked plates, I also recovered pieces she’d left behind. Her earrings from when she’d taken them off during a conversation about dollhouses, her tights from when she’d realised they had a tare and refused to put up with them any longer, all of her hairpins, a pile of receipts she’d removed from her coat pocket in an attempt to find her lipstick and surprisingly enough, her shoes. She had left my apartment without her shoes. It wasn’t until later, when I’d cleaned up and gone back to bed, semi-consciously grateful for the fact that I was sleeping, that I actually stopped to think about what had occurred last night. It must have been the weirdest thing ever to have happened to me, yet I didn’t feel odd about it all.

But. It didn’t feel real. If it hadn’t been for the pieces of evidence I had collected with forensic precision earlier, I’d thought her to be a dream. Now reality had caught up with me, my phone was buzzing. I had five missed calls, two voice mails and three text messages, six e-mails on one account and two on the other. On the other side of it all was a very angry employer and an ex-boyfriend who wanted his things back. I took care of the ex-boyfriend first. It was almost lunch time, so, in agreement with the mysterious note, I went out and bought some more food for my kitchen. Then, in ignorance of my hangover indigestion, while eating a salad with crispy halloumi, I compiled a list from memory of things my ex had left at my place and where they might possibly be. The list ended up being rather short and completely incomplete. I texted him to send me a list of things he needed from me. I called my boss and did my best to convince him I was sick while he silently accused me of being young. After lunch I went back to bed for the afternoon, snoozing through the sound of traffic and construction works.

I didn’t see her again until one night in June, almost two months later, when she knocked on my door instead of ringing the doorbell. “Did you miss me?” Her voice was not as low as last time since she’d not been sitting out in the cold, intoxicated, for several hours. But it was still deep, and it echoed through my tiny apartment as she took a step inside. I had missed her. I’d thought about her quite frequently to begin with, her stories she’d told me, the touch of her hands on my leg and my cheek, the evening we’d had together, though I didn’t remember everything, but after a while I had convinced myself I was being silly, childish, naïve. I focused my mind on other things. She threw her coat off; this time it was a dark green mac, and handed it to me. I hung it up on my improvised coat hanger which used to be a bookshelf. “How’ve you been?” I said, since that seems to be the sort of thing one would say in that kind of situation. “Oh.” She sighed. “Just fine, I suppose.”

“What do you mean by that?” She let herself fall onto my sofa, waist-high jeans and a white t-shirt, and held out her hand for me. She pulled me in to join her. “Nothing to worry about.” she replied. “Just a hick-up.” With her slender hands she pushed my hair behind my ear. “How’ve you been, Noelle?” she asked me. “How’s work?”

“As usual. I’m finding little time for course work.” Since I was now fully conscious and as sane as I’d ever be, it would have been a good time to take a step back and set a few things straight, ask her a few questions, such as “Who are you?”, “What is your name?”, “What do you do, exactly?” But I stayed silent. I’m not sure. Maybe I didn’t want to disturb what she was doing, which was in a way caressing my face with her fingers or I didn’t want her to leave. Or maybe I liked the mystery she provided in my life which was otherwise pretty straight forward. My ex-boyfriend had come to pick up his stuff, he’d announced that his new girlfriend was more successful than I and we had parted our ways, thinking that if she was more successful than I, she probably wouldn’t put up with him for very long. We spent the afternoon chatting about anything we could possibly think of, while she snacked on a jar of olives she’d found in my fridge and drank ice water. I noticed she wasn’t wearing any make-up. Her hair loosely fell over her shoulders, her eyes were as piercing as the night we met. And I stared into them as she lectured me on the significance of gold. There was another thing I noticed. Another couple of things. Bruises on her left wrist, a scratch on her chin.

The moment she left, I felt empty. I wanted to run after her and invite her to stay. I didn’t know where my fascination with this woman came from, but I didn’t want it to go away. I wanted to nurture it, explore it, so it did not bother me at all when she showed up now and again, drunk or sober, freeing herself of her shoes and clothes and hair pins, used my shower or ate my food supplies. I just wanted to be near her. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of her bare skin, scratches and bruises on her thighs, her neck. And I wanted her to feel safe around me, so she’d never stop taking my hand, pulling me in closer or stripping off on her way to the bathroom. Sometimes when I looked at her I could hear the piano music in the background. I stocked up on wine and delicacies, prepared towels for her at all times and made sure my schedule was as free as possible when I wasn’t working. I would go to sleep hoping I’d dream about her. So, when she asked me to kill the man responsible for the marks on her otherwise perfect skin, I said yes. And I did it. I succeeded. I approached him, friendly and smiling, making conversation about the weather, before I stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. I made sure he didn’t survive. I’d seen it done on a TV documentary. It took three days until they found me. I denied it at first, of course, but the evidence they presented was rather convincing. “Why did you do it?” they asked me. The room didn’t seem as menacing as I thought it would. It was very clean and the light was warm and welcoming.

“So?”

“Well.” I told them. “I didn’t see why not.”

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