Improbable Cures for Insomnia
I reach across the bed to find you’re not there. There’s a light on at the end of the hall, but I’d know where you are without it. It’s the sound that does it. It’s better than a cat bell around your neck, your scratching wherever you go. You’ve barely stopped since she moved in.
Diarrhoea. Bladder. Thirst. Hunger. The irresistible urge to stand naked at a window and look out at the city asleep. I know plenty of reasons to be awake during the night, but yours is always the same.
‘Are you alright?’ I stand in the doorway looking at you in your boxers, a key in your hand raking across your bare ribs. Imodium. Night Nurse. Painkillers. Improbable cures for insomnia. I have them all, all I can’t do is make the woman leave. A small boy who looks exactly like your school pictures, I could almost understand.
‘I’m just itchy’, you say, red lines rising on your skin.
There’s powder everywhere, a light frosting of you falls onto the carpet. These days you leave it wherever you go, if I want you all I need do is follow the trail of dead cells.
‘You’re bleeding. Stop.’ My hand forms an unclosed fist over yours. You pull free, writhing at the itch wandering around you. She’s always one step ahead, pinning her pictures on the walls, peeling off plaster with a spatula.
I pull a tissue off the roll. ‘Let me.’ I dab the cuts on your ribs and the dark shape my feet leave in skin-dust makes me think of making snow angels.
‘How’s it looking?’ you ask, ‘is there anything there? Is it worse?’
I circumnavigate you, running my hand over the scabs dotted along your spine. It’s been a while since we touched, I no longer think about washing nectarines when I do. I hope my hands are cool. I want them to be a salve. ‘There’s a graze where you’ve been scratching,’ I say, ‘It’s nothing. Just come back to bed.’
I follow you out staring at the small of your back striped in scratches. The scab that never heals is as wide as a strip of Velcro. It is Velcro. Bits of our day stick to it, but nothing disturbs it. Soap. Laundry detergent. Shower gel. I’ve changed them all. It stays where it is, unresponsive to allergens or creams people use on babies. Every so often, slighter cuts appear and disappear around it like someone wanting a different view from their house.
The bed shivers and falls still as you scratch yourself to sleep. I lie beside you deciding I won’t do it tonight. I’ll just close my eyes, but I can’t. I crawl under the sheets with the torch on my keyring and shine. One finger on Velcro, I peer inside the wound like someone trying to see the world through a letterbox. There she is, again. The small woman who lives in you flits past. Scraping the wallpaper. Sanding the floors. Pinning landscapes and pictures of cottages above her fire. I barely see her face, she’s always on the move, but she looks middle-aged and serious about something. She is wearing an apron and boots. I watch her move through you moving her furniture around, painting the rooms different colours, constantly flicking on and off the lights.
Angela Readman’s short stories have won the National Flash Fiction Day Competition, The Costa Short Story Award & The Mslexia Story Prize. Her debut collection Don’t Try This at Home was shortlisted for The Edgehill Prize and won The Rubery Book Award. She also writes poetry, her latest collection The Book of Tides was published by Nine Arches (2016.)
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Image: Joseba Eskubi