I realised I was the last person awake, apart from the hosts, so I prepared to leave. They weren’t having any of it – they gave me a couple of sofa cushions and insisted that I crash in the spare room, if I could find any floor space.
I got up and wove my way through the debris from the house party. The hosts showed me the way and bid me goodnight. As I climbed the stairs, the light dimmed until I was feeling my way along the walls.
I stepped over bodies asleep on the landing. I nearly toppled twice, my balance compromised by holding the bulky sofa cushions. I felt my way to the spare-room door, and groped around in vain for a light switch.
Giving up, I swept my foot along the floor like a metal detector, trying to find an empty space in the pitch blackness. But there were people sleeping here too.
My thigh brushed against something – a bed. I abandoned the sofa cushions at the foot of someone in a sleeping bag, who was sufficiently drunk and unconscious not to notice.
I felt across the width of the bed. When my hands hit nothing, I became bolder and felt further up. To my surprise, the bed seemed empty.
I climbed aboard, running my tongue over my fuzzy teeth and regretting that I would not brush them tonight. As soon as I lay down, my head gently throbbed as though my hangover was already kicking in.
Huddled on one side of the bed, I stripped down to my boxers in the dark. I ditched my clothes next to me and felt around for a pillow.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” I whispered to the girl who had shrieked when my hand had landed on her bare skin. She’d been curled up in one small corner of the bed. “I didn’t know you were there!”
“I wasn’t.” She giggled.
I cautiously reached out into the dark to find my clothes. “I’ll find a space on the floor.”
“Don’t be so silly.” She sighed languorously, stretching out so that an arm and a leg pinned me back to the bed. “This is a biiiiiig bed. We can share it.”
She rolled away from me. It crossed my mind that she had probably just pushed my clothes off the bed onto some unsuspecting drunkard sleeping on the floor.
“I do move around a lot though,” she said. “Pardon me if I disturb you.” She shuffled somewhere in the dark.
“I’ll be fine, I’m a heavy sleeper.”
“Pity. I’m an insomniac.”
There was a moment of silence. I felt like we were the last two people awake for miles.
She squirmed, prodding my shoulder. “Did you know that there are more people alive today than have died since the dawn of history?” she said, out of nowhere.
I thought about it. “That can’t be.”
“It’s true. The population of the world has increased so dramatically over the last hundred years, and all those people are still alive. There are six billion people alive right now, and it hasn’t been that long since there were only a few hundred thousand people on the whole planet.”
I imagined her gesticulating, drawing a steep exponential curve in the air. I didn’t believe her. “But humans have been around for a hundred and fifty thousand years. Even if -“
“Ah, that’s the catch,” she interrupted. “It’s only since the dawn of history.”
“When did history start?”
“With writing. Say, five thousand years ago.”
“So fewer people have died in the last five thousand years than are alive today?”
“Makes you feel small, doesn’t it?” she said, and shuffled again. “Oh, do you want a pillow? I’m hogging them all.”
“Oof!” I exhaled as a pillow landed on my midriff. “Are you trying to start a pillow fight?”
“I don’t need it. It’s just that I hug the pillows sometimes when I’m trying to sleep.”
“What’s your name?”
She told me and I forgot it instantly. I remember it as Cora, but that’s a guess. I know my memory of the night is faulty because I can almost recall how she looked, but I never saw her.
She didn’t ask me my name. She asked me what I did for a living.
“I’m doing admin for local government,” I answered.
“What do you really want to do?”
“Well, I want to be a writer. One day. But that’s not going to make me a living, at least not yet. So I have to do a job.”
“But you know what you want to do. That’s amazing.”
“Yeah. Although sometimes I feel like I’m deluding myself. If I want to write I should be writing, not doing dead-end admin.”
“I know how you feel,” she confided, shifting again. I could hear from her voice that she was facing me directly now. “I’m living a dead-end life.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have no idea what I want to do. So I’m doing a menial job because it’s easy. I’m just killing time until…” She paused.
“Exactly. Until what. It’s depressing.”
I felt a wave of drunkenness wash over me. My eyes saw dancing patterns in the black. “How old are you?” I asked.
“So you’ve only been an adult for five years. You’ve only been able to make your own decisions about your life for five years. Think how long that’s been – and you have maybe a dozen of those five-year stints left. That’s a dozen more lifetimes you can have. So don’t give up yet.”
She sighed. “It’s too much, though. Too difficult. How do I decide what to do with the next five years, let alone my life?”
“Do whatever you want.”
“I don’t know what I want. There are too many options. Meanwhile, I’m coasting along the path of least resistance. I don’t want anything badly enough to pour my heart and soul into it – I admire people who do.”
“Ah, the curse of freedom,” I countered with mild sarcasm.
“Exactly. We have too much freedom. It’s a sickness. A hundred years ago, we’d have been allocated a job for life, and a partner for life. Our decisions were dictated by a firm moral code, religion. And ambition was defined as rising above those modest expectations.”
“I see what you mean,” I admitted. “When there’s only one path, there’s one way to succeed and one way to fail. And now we have a million ways to fail. But we also have so many more ways to succeed.”
“Success is impossible when everyone has such freedom, because there’s always someone out there doing it better than you. When conformity was the rule, success was easy. A hundred years ago, I just had to be a good housewife, well-mannered and devout.”
“Thousands of feminists are turning in their graves right now.”
“It sounds stupid, but I’m envious of people who’ve had some kind of tragedy in their life. If you’re homeless, or you’ve got no legs or whatever, success is easy. Your freedom is restricted, so the path is clearer.”
I frowned in the darkness. “You don’t really want that, do you?”
I heard her inhale as if she was about to respond, but she said nothing. It came out as a sigh.
She reached over and tickled me. I laughed, trying to stay quiet, and reflexively slapped her arms away. It was a thrill, flirting with this stranger in the dark.
She dived for my midriff again with tickling fingers and I took her wrists and pushed them back towards her. I brushed against her breasts and snapped my hands away.
“What are you wearing?” I asked.
“Just knickers,” she replied. “I’ve got my nightie, but it’s so dark in here I took it off before you came in.”
“Sorry I touched you.”
“Don’t worry, it was my fault.”
“Are you going to sleep like that?”
“Oh, no. I’m an insomniac, I told you. I probably won’t sleep at all.”
She was much closer now. I could smell her skin. I moved my arm so that it was touching her, but only barely. Probably her leg. I tried to make it seem casual, as if it was the result of inadvertent restlessness in the dark, but I left it there, feeling her warmth.
“I just want to be different, you know. Unique,” she murmured, more softly than before.
“That’s the problem.”
I felt tired, and let her words drift through me. A couple of times I thought I had responded, but then realised I hadn’t, and I had to make a real effort to lift the conscious part of my brain into speech.
But then I felt her hand touching me, searching. I became wide awake again. I shrank away as her hand wandered close to my groin. I would be embarrassed if she touched me there, especially at that moment.
The silence became as complete as the darkness as her wandering hand persisted, and found me. My breathing deepened as she massaged me beneath my boxer shorts. I closed my eyes and imagined what she looked like.
Without stopping, she took my hand and placed it on her breast. With my other senses stifled, I quivered with the pleasure of her touch, her feminine texture.
Then I heard her gentle breathing become irregular, and I remembered that we were not alone in this room. Yet we were each more alone than ever.
She retreated for a tantalising moment and I heard the telltale sound of her knickers being slipped off. There was movement on the bed, and suddenly I was aware that she was invisibly straddling me.
“I don’t have protection,” I whispered.
She pulled down my boxers. Some part of my brain resisted, but not strongly enough to translate into physical movement. Warm and yielding, she enveloped me. Neither of us moved at first, just savouring the sensation.
Softly, she rocked. I put my hands on her sides, feeling taut stomach muscles. I gasped as orgasm rippled through me, and into her.
Then it was as if she disappeared, as if she disengaged and left without me noticing. The bed felt empty. I must have fallen asleep.
I awoke feeling tired, as if I had not slept but been unconscious. Any hangover I deserved had passed, leaving behind only an echo of dread, as if something unexplained was wrong. Thick curtains had been pulled aside and the sun shone through the windows.
There were still some party guests sleeping haphazardly on the floor, but I was alone on the bed. I closed my eyes for a few minutes, remembering Cora. Then I got up.
I found a bathroom and splashed water on my face. I borrowed a toothbrush and cleaned my mouth out.
I dared to venture back into the bedroom to look for my clothes. As I cast my eyes about the room I looked for faces that might be hers.
Once dressed, I followed the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs and found the hosts with a smattering of guests. My recall of names and faces is unreliable at best, but when alcohol is thrown into the mix I don’t even bother trying.
I made small talk and ate sausages and fried toast. My eyes absorbed every face in the room and I tried to guess. None of them gave me any signal. No naughty secrets were coaxed into mischievous smiles on my account.
But she wouldn’t have known who I was. She never saw me, and I never told her my name. I wasn’t even sure of hers. I didn’t know how to broach it in conversation – it would be embarrassing if she was offended that I didn’t recognise her.
The guests must have thought I was suffering from some kind of paranoid anxiety, my eyes flicking back and forth between them, weighing each of them up in turn as if I suspected them of pouncing.
But as the ambrosial breakfast settled in my stomach, I let go. It was purer as a secret, as a mystery.