The City of Belham by Julia Molloy

When Deirdra left Chimney, she didn’t know what she’d end up doing. Her old university friend Christian had invited her to stay and she’d immediately said yes. They hadn’t spoken for several months, hadn’t seen each other for several years, but it meant a couple of days away from Chimney. That was all that mattered.

On the train, she tried not to think about much at all. She had a table to herself and the kick of coffee on her lips while the carriage hurtled along at 70 miles per hour. Sunlight fractured through the raindrops on the window. On the other side of the glass, she could pick out quivering clouds of sheep and haystacks like coins on a table. The world thrummed to the train’s motion on the tracks, and with every station that passed by she felt further away from her tether, a balloon freed in the wind. Deirdra welcomed it all in.

It was hard to believe that only a few hours ago she’d been sat in her flat in Chimney. Her boyfriend had been ranting on about the latest cricket match. Deirdra hadn’t been sure what he was talking about, but his voice, with its clipped Chimney tone, jarred against her migraine. She couldn’t bring herself to stop his tirade. With Chimney folk, it was best to let them keep puffing.

She’d met her boyfriend during her first job after university, and it made sense for them to both settle in Chimney. Sometimes, she loved the brashness of his voice, its devil-may-care attitude that so many in the town had. You knew exactly where you stood, and the only rule was to be true in what you said. Deirdra was caught from the moment he told her she was ‘bootiful’ because she knew that was exactly how he felt. In the three years since, he had never lied to her even if she didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

At other times, Deirdra screamed in her head. She hated his voice and all it stood for in this backwards town, which she usually realised through the depressant fog of too many tequilas at the Smokin’ Club. She’d listen to his shouts, his flat vowels and his blatant views that merged with the rest of the crowd and be appalled at how she’d ended up in this dirt-filled, crumbling place.

Once, Deirdra asked him whether he ever thought of moving away from Chimney.

The boyfriend shrugged.

Deirdra was determined to look forward to her stay with Christian. Since leaving university he’d stayed in the same office job in the city of Belham, though she was never exactly sure what he did. Probably something with lots of acronyms and sophisticated language, she thought. She arrived at Belham Central to find Christian waiting for her on the platform. The station felt more like an airport with its sweeping escalators and perfume shops and shimmering floors. They hugged, smiled, asked after each other’s health. She was surprised at how suave her friend looked given that she’d frequently seen him struggling to get out of his pyjamas at university. He was dressed in a sharp check shirt and navy chinos with brown polished shoes, clothes she hadn’t known he possessed. After sharing the burden of her bags, they left the station and caught a cab back to his flat. He struck up a conversation with the driver and pointed out landmarks. A museum he loved there, the park where everyone rendezvoused on a sunny afternoon over there. The lamppost he’d thrown up at on his first night after holding a housewarming party over there. She laughed and felt her lungs swell with freshness as the cab rolled up to her friend’s flat. He led her up to the third floor.

The flat had a view of the whole city. From the kitchen, Deirdra watched the sky darken, the drizzle bringing an early sunset. It was that moment of the day she loved: neither light nor dark but some electric hue in between that hugged you and kept you alive. She opened the window and listened to the city’s symphony of rain, church bells and chatter. Christian switched on the hob; the tang of onions frying cloaked the room. They talked about work and the endless frustrations of ‘adult life’, but so far away from Chimney Deirdra laughed to think she had any frustrations.

As they ate their meal, he put his hand on hers. The conversation lulled. The city’s symphony propelled her on.

Deirdra woke lying next to her friend. Leaving him to sleep, she went to the kitchen, boiled the kettle for a coffee, and poured herself some cornflakes. He didn’t have any milk so she crunched her way through the bowl, the cereal clogging the roof of her mouth. Below, the city was starting its sleepy Saturday morning. She watched workers in retail uniforms hurrying along and the odd girl still tottering in high heels from the night before. A young man caught her eye in the street below, scuffing the tarmac with every slow step. In his hand was a newspaper of some description. She wondered if this was the young man’s routine, buying a paper every Saturday and reading the sports pages like her boyfriend did. Whether he ever stopped to ask why or whether he simply continued on, tethered to the city.

When Christian woke, he found her still standing by the kitchen window. He stood by her side and put his clammy arms around her waist. The young man she’d been watching had disappeared from view, but she could hear his continued shuffling, on and on. She supposed the people of Belham merely lived, just like everyone else.

‘Do you ever think of moving away from Belham?’ Deirdra asked.

Christian breathed in and stared out at the city. ‘Where else is there to go?’

Deirdra lent her forehead against the window. Perhaps there was nowhere else to go. But she couldn’t help thinking that she’d find something if she only looked hard enough.

Julia Molloy is a short story writer whose work has been shortlisted at the Fresher Writing Prize 2016 and longlisted at the Doris Gooderson 2016 short story competition. Her work is soon to appear at Fictive Dream. She currently works in Communications and Engagement. Find her at her website and on Twitter.

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