A Sense of Commotion on the Sixth Floor by Hannah Sutherland

It’s her voice you hear first. A high-pitched shriek that brings up your skin in pimples. You’ve been sitting at your wobbly-legged desk, mindlessly nibbling a cinnamon swirl that bloats you, sipping lukewarm tea on your swivel chair which is stuck at one disappointing level and makes the rope of your spine crooked and painful but sure, you’re too lazy to swap it for a chair that’s perfect. Think you’d miss complaining about it anyway. 

He calls you at work occasionally. Today, the early morning rays assault the office, blinding in a sea of scarlet and coral and carmine, and so you’ve to conduct your typing tasks with just one hand; multitasking between working, eating, drinking, thinking of him. The other hand is raised at an angle to your forehead. It was on Tuesday- or was it Wednesday? – when he last called.  

Today is Friday.     

Then you hear the click clickity clack clack click of her expensive stiletto heels against the laminate. There is an entitlement to her walk, an arrogance in her swagger.  

He says things on the phone that make you feel naughty. You hold your secret low in your tummy as it gnaws. Sometimes you’re so excited about the evening you feel like you’ll vomit in the day. You feel grown up and special, like you’re this untouchable object floating away, a speck of dust nobody can catch. 

After her heels- the smell. Christ, the smell. Floral and sickly and overpowering.  

You smell it on him All The Time. You give him a mint to mask it, lather his body in soothing vanilla when you bathe together, wash his clothes with yours when he sleeps so he smells of you. It doesn’t work. She’s always there, lingering. 

You should leave her,’ you tell him one night as you spoon yoghurt into your mouth. He’s lying on your dough like middle doing his breathing exercises with his eyes closed. His forehead crinkles and you run your forefinger over the creases, smoothing them out. Better. You repeat yourself in case he hasn’t heard, even though you know he has.  

I’m on a sandy beach somewhere hottish,’ he ignores you, patting his fingers with their chewed nails on his chest, his thumb, forefinger, middle finger, ring fucking finger, tiny pinkie. He repeats this with his other hand. ‘I’m on that beach and you’re there with me,’ he says, as though this is meant to be soothing. 

Cool,’ you say, sucking the spoon clean until it shines. The taste of metal stays long after he’s gone and you’re lying lonely on your double bed with your yoghurt-stained bedsheets smelling of you, of him, of her. 

Then you see her hair. Auburn loose ringlets illuminated in a blaze of fiery fury. A deathly halo circling her skull.  

‘What are you doing? Like, seriously, what are you doing with him?’ your friends say. They don’t understand. You’re his escape, his cornucopia of desire.       

‘I can’t talk to anyone the way I can talk to you,’ he goes. ‘You just… get me.’ 

Even though this knowledge pleases you, it doesn’t stop you feeling guilty. You’re not completely morally bankrupt. You’re certain in the pale dark as he exclaims how good it feels that she’s somehow in your flat. She’s slipped her body in through the bricks and she’s watching with the white of her eyes gleaming like knives waiting to slit. But when you turn on the lamp: nothing. Just him and you and the sound of bare skin slapping skin. Sure, he continues unaware.  

You watch those same eyes dart back and forth, scouting you out. Your palm lands on your chest trying to calm the boom booming beneath your goosepimpled skin and you chew your lips like they’re food, only the blood tastes sour and erases the sweetness of the swirl that’s stuck in your throat. 

You wonder if he’d hold the same appeal if he was available. You think about this a lot. Yes. You think you would. You like the way he smiles at you after he comes, like you’re a gift. The way he presents his palms to you when he’s talking, open and at ease and expressive. When he brings you a pan of newly fresh porridge to share in bed and he licks the spoon, you like to watch his throat as he swallows, then feel the sensation of the sharp knot of his Adam’s apple on your tongue as you search for fallen oats but really, it’s just another excuse to devour him. 

All these little things exist without her. You’d like him all the same. You might even love him. Just a little. 

She spots you… 

… you better run. 

You bolt towards the fire exit at the other end of the office- and yes, colleagues do stare over the top of their skinny lattes because you are not known for your fitness prowess, and yes, they do stare at this redheaded gazelle chasing you, cracking her ankles before she discards her heels. They’re intrigued, perplexed, perversely enjoying this unexpected commotion and disruption to their usually mundane mornings, and although you’re shorter, quicker, younger, and she’s rounder, older, slower, still you bloody run- with droplets of sweat crawling over your skin like ants, causing your blouse to stick to your back like a second skin- and you know that on Monday, when he calls- and he will call, because he always does- and asks you to come over at night, to rub the squidge just below his belly button wanting more but settling all the same and you feel seedy and guilty and confused, you know you’ll say yes. 

You always say yes.  

Hannah is a Scottish writer. She placed 2nd in the 2020 Aurora Prize. Her N-i-F Small Things was Highly Commended in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction later in the year. She’s forthcoming writing in The Common Breath ‘voices in the dark’ series. She tweets @HannahWrites88

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