flash fictionIssue 4

Underworld

Cate West

It is morning, early. Sunk on a mattress. The tube isn’t running or she’d feel the joists shaking. If she was home.

She’s not home.

She opens her eyes. Furrowed mattress, damp with cold. Fag-scarred carpet. An ashtray, half empty, a bottle, rolling. Smirnoff. How did she get here? Swam through the usual damn portal. Her body blushes. Would she recognise him? Nope.

She thinks she can make it in to work today. She ought to try. There is no sign of her clothes or her travel card or keys. She pulls the duvet around herself and crawls to the window, peers under the blinds. Streetlights still lit. She can’t remember the journey.

The glass mists. It is that cold.

A old man below is walking his dog, slow steps on glittering tarmac. She watches him tug the little white dog behind him. He doesn’t look up.

The streetlights blink off.

She has to pee.

All she can hear is the drub of bass from an upstairs flat.

‘Hello?’ she calls, shivering, wondering where she flung her clothes. Whoever she came home with must have gone for a pint of milk. They never have milk.

On the left, a bathroom. Washbasin. Loo. No toothbrush, no towels. A cracked and gnarled carcass of soap.

She shivers as the alcohol makes its apologies. The skin in her mouth sticks to itself. She doesn’t fancy drinking from the tap but she cups her hands anyway. When he gets back he’ll ask for her number. She’ll make something up. Perhaps give him Paul’s. The thought of some nightclubber calling her boss makes her giggle, and then she shivers again.

An alcove with microwave, kettle and sink. Fat smelly bin-bag. She prods it with her toe, thinking of a steaming polystyrene mug of tea in her hands with longing.

She pulls the duvet around her shoulders like a fat pashmina, returns to the lounge. Bare. Floorboards. Books, dusty old volumes you can’t imagine anyone reading, propped between house-bricks. She opens one. Trial of so-and-so, by some Frenchman. Words dance a gibberish jig. She shuts its thin pages before she’s sick.

Front door with letterbox. Deadlocked.

From the bedroom window she can still see the footprints of the old man and his dog picked out in the frost but as she watches they blur and fade.

She pulls on the sash with gym-toned arms. The frame is clogged with gloss-paint but finally she heaves it an inch and yells.

Hey!

Nothing.

She’d think herself dead and in limbo except for the beat of the music.

Thump thump.

When Persephone went to the Underworld she ate six seeds.

She tries to remember when she last ate anything. Maybe he’ll bring back a Big Mac with the milk. It’s the kind of thing they do. They can usually cook one signature meal, but to sample it you have to go through all the rigmarole. What’s your name, what do you do, are you single, what music do you like, what are your fucking HOBBIES. Only then are you presented with a spag bol, a glass of merlot and a sweaty hand on the thigh. She could cry, really, thinking about it.

Why couldn’t this freak leave a note like everyone else?

She walks to the front door and kneels, wedges open the letter box with her fists and yells through the gap

‘I’m locked in!’

Silence.

The music has clicked off.

Footsteps, pounding the walkway.

Through the letterbox, she sees thighs in a baggy tracksuit and high-tops, their fat tongues poking out at her.

‘Help,’ she whispers.

A waft of caries, skunk and lager.

Eyes, red-rimmed, glacial.

‘I’m listening to my fucking music.’

Man’s voice, London accent, chewing gum.

‘We mind our own here. Shut it.’

A dirt rimmed thumb, close, almost poking her in the eye. He’s holding a lighter and he flashes it in front of her, on/off, so close she imagines hair sizzling.

She pulls away. Her stomach spasms. She hopes it’s not her period. Imagine that!

She should go back to sleep and wait.

It will come out right in the end.

It always does.

Cate graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2019. She was shortlisted for York Festival of Writing’s Friday Night Live Competition and longlisted for Mslexia’s Novel Competition. Cate lives and works in the Midlands, teaching Creative Writing, and was recently selected for Writing West Midlands’ Room 204 development scheme. Publications: ‘The Blue Pool’ in ‘The Invisible Collection’, Nightjar Press 2020; ‘Imbolc’, Lunate 2021.