Black No. 1
Robert Astor was woken by sex noises.
"Fuck's sake," he muttered, burying his head in a pillow which smelt of new hair dye. He was getting a headache.
After a few minutes of moans and whimpers, he pulled his duvet around his shoulders and stumbled out of bed. His room was dark, the shades pulled over the windows and door shut against the grey morning, and he blinked when he stepped into the light.
The noise ceased as he padded into the kitchen, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Still only half-awake, he reached for a box of peppermint tea. He only drank herbal teas, and this week was peppermint week.
The noises started again just as the kettle boiled. "Fuck!" Robert screamed, banging on the wall in the vain hope that the couple would hear him and shut up. They didn't, and so he swallowed two aspirins to ward off the headache and washed it down with the contents of the nearest glass.
While he was pouring his peppermint tea, the telephone rang and he padded into the living room to answer it, burning his hand on the hot mug. The phone was somewhere in a pile of scrunched-up tissues and it took Robert a moment to dig it out.
It was Andrew. "Hey Robbie."
Robert smiled slightly and went into the bathroom. As he stared into the mirror, a tall, pasty character stared back. His long limbs protruded from blue-and-white striped pyjamas, and a large tangle of night-black hair exploded from his pale scalp. Robert's smile melted at his reflection.
Andrew was talking again, just as awkward as Robert remembered: "Listen, do you want to-"
"What in the bejesus was that?" Andrew wanted to know.
Robert sighed. "The bi-polar couple two doors down."
Andrew let out a low whistle, the sibilance crackling down the phone line. "They're loud," he said.
"No kidding," Robert muttered darkly and reached for his toothpaste. It was from the health shop, and was made from totally natural ingredients. "What is it that you want?"
It was a common question for them. Sometimes, when they used to scream at each other and hurl hurtful words (or vases) across the room, Robert would find himself asking Andrew that very same thing. What is it that you want? He used to find it difficult to understand why the answer was always I don't know.
But now Andrew was talking, and Robert hadn't been listening. "What?" he asked through a mouthful of frothy toothpaste.
"Can I come over?" Andrew asked at last, sounding fragile and more than a little lost.
Robert paused for a moment, during which time there was a loud moan of surprise and a few choice words from two doors down.
After a beat, Andrew said, "Well, at least someone's enjoying Valentines Day."
"Shut up," Robert advised him, and hung up.
Andrew came anyway, knocking on the familiar pea-green door just as Robert was going back to bed in fresh (but identical) pyjamas. The knock was the same as it always had been, three in quick succession and then a fourth, an afterthought, and something taught inside Robert's chest twanged.
He considered not answering the door. He considered letting Andrew stand out there for as long as he would wait, or until Mrs McGrail from two doors down shooed him out of the building with a broom.
Robert stared at his bed. It was rumpled and stark white against the darkness of his bedroom. It smelled of Albas oil and Swartzkopf black hair dye – Robert's smell. It had been a long time since his bed had smelt of anything (or anyone) but himself.
He went back into the living room and opened the door. Andrew had a bunch of roses and tears in his eyes. The message radiated from him like heat: I'm sorry.
Neither of them said anything. They stood in the doorway, staring at each other and trying to work out what to say that wouldn't end in tears or smashed vases.
"They've stopped," Andrew said weakly, the threatened tears finally falling anyway. "Mr and Mrs Bi-Polar, I mean…" He didn't know what else to say.
Robert nodded and wearily beckoned the younger man inside.
It had been a long time, after all, since his pillow had smelt of cologne and Andrew's shampoo.