The beeping woke Jennie, an incessant cacophony that dragged her out of sleep and into the cold morning. She blearily opened one eye and saw the motionless figure of her boyfriend asleep beside her, snoring faintly. As ever, his ability to sleep through his alarm both surprised and angered her. It was supposed to wake him up but all it ever did was wake her up! She poked him, causing him to grunt and realise that the alarm sounded. He slapped out a hand and hit the snooze button.
Jennie sank back into the covers, willing sleep to wash over her. Nine minutes later, as she teetered on the edge of sleep, the beeping started again.
She went through this ordeal every morning, so alien to her own habit of waking up and getting up the moment her alarm went off. After only two months of living together, she wondered if she would be able to endure it for much longer. She knew that it was supposed to be difficult, getting used to sharing someone else's intimate space, but everything seemed to be going fine. Except for his snooze alarm.
Every nine minutes for the next hour, Jennie's attempts to fall back asleep were dashed by that horrible beeping. After a few rounds of it, Iain draped an arm over her and kissed her cheek. "Love you," he mumbled.
"Yeah," Jennie muttered, rolling away from him and onto her side.
She had been looking forward to a sleep-in. She had been so tired lately, for no apparent reason, and had craved those extra hours of sleep. The alarm had started at seven o'clock, far too early for her even on her better days.
She wanted to scream, cry, punch the wall; most of all, she wanted to sleep. Iain kept trying to cajole her into a hug but she resisted him, determined not to let him think she was at all happy with him. After a while he started to get upset, pleading with her, asking what he had done, and continually telling her that he loved her.
"I know!" She finally rolled over and glared at him. "And I love you too. But I wish you wouldn't set your alarm so bloody early!"
"You know me."
"You don't need to set your alarm two hours before your lecture!"
"Yes I do," Iain protested. "Otherwise it's always a rush to get there in time." He sighed and rolled over, turning his back to Jennie. "You don't understand."
"No," she muttered hotly, "I don't."
The alarm started beeping again. She wanted to pick it up and throw it against the wall. Anything to vent her frustration.
Iain tried hugging her again five minutes later. Her arms automatically slid around his form, but her heart wasn't in the gesture and her mind still warred between anger and exhaustion. Iain kissed her softly on the lips before getting out of bed and wandering, naked, to the shower. Jennie could still remember their lovemaking the night before, and marvelled sadly at the difference in her feelings for him now.
The sound of tumbling water kept her awake at first, and then city noises reached her ears: cars passing in the nearby street, using it as a through-road between two larger roads; creaking from the flat above; then sirens from somewhere. Her writer's mind wondered if someone was dying, or if a fire raged. Probably just a burglar alarm, she thought morosely, and kicked the duvet off her in frustration. No way was she getting back to sleep now.
She hauled herself out of bed and traipsed through to the kitchen, to find only the dying-animal smell of cheese in their fridge. No milk and, when she looked in the cupboard, she saw no cereal either, except for bran products. She might as well eat cardboard. Crinkling her nose at the cheese smell – why did Iain insist of letting cheese 'mature'? – she wandered back through to the bedroom, sat down at her desk and turned her computer on.
No emails, no one on MSN Messenger except for the people she didn't really talk to and should probably delete, no contact from the outside world. She felt isolated, alone, and wanted to cry.
All because of that snooze alarm. She knew that her day's mood was often affected by the first thing that happened to her; starting the day with anger was never a good thing.
"Love you!" Iain announced, walking dripping wet to her and embracing her in a soaking hug.
She gave him a smile, despite the annoyance that rippled through her at having her pyjamas dampened – she would have to put them in the tumble dryer – and went for her own shower. The steaming hot water failed to cheer her, and she found her towel on the floor and wet. Iain must have knocked it off the rail and dripped on it.
He left her ten minutes later, kissing her on the cheek before going to his lecture. Jennie sat on the bed and scowled at the clock. What was she supposed to do now? She had the day off lectures, so she should really do some reading or something, but she didn't feel like it. No ideas flowed through her mind, so she didn't feel like writing; her mind felt so sluggishly devoid of any thought that she couldn't even decide what to do. Eventually the nagging pressure of an essay due in a week's time touched her awareness, and she decided to get out the reading list and go to the library to get some books. Maybe a tube journey and getting some books out would make her feel like she had done something; might even lift her spirits a little.
She found the piece of paper with the essay title and suggested reading, and went online to the library catalogue to find the class marks. Armed with a page full of letters and numbers that meant little to her – the library didn't use the Dewey Decimal system, instead it used some apparently random system that confounded her almost every time she went; they couldn't even file things in order, so sometimes she had to hike up and down stairs to find the book across the vast building in a back room – she stuffed her wallet, phone, keys and oyster card into her bag and picked up her coat. She remembered that she needed to apply for her provisional driver's license, a chore that she kept putting off, and decided to get it over and done with, so she picked up her passport too and set off. Chores and libraries, she thought; what a thrilling day this will be.
The world outside was far too cold for her liking. Winter in England meant low, grey skies, hanging over the city of London and bringing with it a dull gloom that permeated every corner. The sun shone somewhere, high above the clouds, but only aeroplanes would see its glorious yellow rays. Jennie, like all Londoners, had to live with the grey.
A chill wind sent the fallen leaves into small flurries, but they had turned brown and ugly, a pale shadow of their former red and orange brilliance. Jennie hugged her coat closer to her slim form, shivering and cursing her sensitivity to the cold. Her damp towel hadn't dried her well, making her cold when she put on her clothes; it seemed that the chill sank right to her soul.
The bustle of the tube station crowded her, made her withdraw into herself; every noise, from the beep of her oyster card as she tapped it onto the reader, to the screech of the train's brakes as it pulled up to the grey concrete platform, jarred her ears and made her flinch. She stepped onto the train amidst a clump of people. Two fat old men took two of the three seats, leaving only the space between them. She didn't feel like being squashed between them so she stood, hanging onto the bar for support.
The train jolted along the District Line, Jennie a slave to its jerky movements. She had a view out one of the windows and every now and then she saw the grey sky. The District Line ran only half a storey below the surface, and there were occasional open spaces, which had been built to let the steam out when the trains ran by steam engines.
Once, as the train pulled out of Sloane Square station, she saw a parting in the clouds. One ray of sun fell through the clouds for just a moment, illuminating a soaring bird, and Jennie's heart leapt up with the bird. If only she could be up there too, soaring high enough to see the sun! Her eyes slid shut as she imagined the world above the clouds.
Puffy white clouds made up the floor, purest white and soft enough to sink into; as if the world was carpeted with cushions. Above her soared the endless sky, cerulean blue during day; at night, the stars would come out, bright specks out white against a black backdrop. If she flew far enough north, the Northern Lights would colour the sky, pinks and greens moving in their ethereal dance above her.
She felt a smile curve her lips, and then the train started jolting particularly violently, signifying that they approached Victoria station. For some reason the track between Sloane Square and Victoria was particularly bad.
Grey invaded Jennie's world again, clawing its despondent way into her, shrouding the joyous vision of her cloud world.
She rebelled against the grey, trying to lift her spirits back into the clouds, but she couldn't quite succeed. The train jolted to a halt and a flat voice intoned, "This is Victoria station. Change for the Victoria line, National Rail services from Victoria station and coach services from Victoria coach station. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform." The doors slid open, not smooth on their old rails, and a mass of people left the train, exchanging their places with the throng on the platform.
Jennie, right next to the door, was pushed aside by suitcases and foreigners trying to figure out what to do. Tourists moved around Victoria station like vermin, standing on the wrong side of the escalator and getting in everyone else's way when they stopped in the middle of a walkway to look at a map, their ignorance of British culture oftentimes an insult to their fellow travellers – Jennie knew that her foul mood coloured her thoughts about the tourists, who weren't all bad. Victoria was a focus because it offered direct National Rail services to Gatwick Airport, England's second biggest airport.
"Gatwick," Jennie whispered softly, thinking suddenly of the planes that took off from there into the sun-kissed sky.
She darted off the train, the doors hissing shut behind her, seized by a reckless desire. She could go to Gatwick and fly high, free of the grey world that threatened to turn her into a cold shell.
Screw Iain, screw her essay, screw her thus-far scrupulous savings… She would come back one day, maybe after a week or two, maybe longer. She had money put away, she had her passport, she had brought a big bag to haul books around in so she could buy some clothes and other necessary things. She would survive.
Laughter leapt from her throat as she walked briskly through the station and out into the brief stretch of open air between the tube station and the National Rail station. She looked up at the grey clouds and laughed at them. So long and farewell, I shan't be missing you! I'll be flying high, in a world of clouds and cerulean skies, and when I touch down to earth again it will be somewhere warm, somewhere sunny, and I a carefree soul, free…
Still laughing, she rushed into the station. What worth is a life, she thought, if it is not lived?