A Million Billion Secrets — Barney Walsh

Sony a7R, Sonar FE 55mm F1.8 ZA

So there they both are, stupidly early in the morning, sat just out of arm’s reach of one another on the steps of the town square’s crumbly old war memorial – this pretty ugly thing with a fat stone cross and carvings of dead soldiers all round it dribbled with birdcrap like blood leaking from their wounds. The girl feeling really awkward, dead aware of the boy right behind her, higher up the steps. Saying not one single thing to what she’s got him there to tell him. She can practically feel his breath on the back of her neck. He’s so not her boyfriend, never was and never will be. The shops not even open yet, no one else about. No school today, so it’s a bit of a miracle for either of them to be out of bed at this hour. Even without looking she can see in her head the boy slouched there behind her, on the topmost of the memorial’s half-dozen steps, his back against its broad stone pedestal, doing one of his not-giving-a-shit poses. Hunched forwards, elbows on knees, his head hanging low. Pretending like it’s nothing to do with him. Cupping his phone in his palms like it’s a tiny injured baby bird or something, staring blankly into its darkened screen. And they’ve been sitting here in silence like this for what feels like for ever.

‘I don’t fucking believe this shit,’ the boy says at last.

The girl ignores him. Tries to. She’s on the bottom step, off to one corner. Her hands flat on the stone either side of her, knees pressed together and feet apart, toes pointing inwards. She tilts back her head, eyes closed, raising her face to the pale clear sky.

The boy says, ‘This is such fucking shit.’

‘Can’t you just shut up for once in your life?’ says the girl, not opening her eyes.

‘Thought we were here to talk,’ says the boy. ‘Thought that’s what you fucking wanted, isn’t it? Me, talking. To you. About this shit.’

‘That’s what we’re calling it, is it? This shit?’

‘What the fuck else’d you call it?’

The girl opens her eyes, but doesn’t twist round to face him; she focuses instead on a single distant cloud, hanging immobile above the jagged line of the rooftops. She says, ‘I’m just wondering if you can get through one sentence without saying shit or fuck or worse. Not that I’m bothered about bad language or whatever but I’m just kind of curious if it’s even humanly possible for you.’

‘Okay,’ says the boy. ‘Here’s a sentence without words your granny wouldn’t use. Are you sure for definite that it’s mine?’

She’s not about to even, like, dignify that. Her face from tilting back to gaze at the sky falls forwards and down, slowly, to stare at the ground. At the town square’s paving flags, ruptured and repaired with uneven tarmac, fluttering with litter.

‘I said you sure it’s mine or what?’

‘I’ve not been with anyone else, if that’s what you’re asking.’

‘You know that for a fact? You can’t have got pissed and forgot?’

The girl’s not saying anything till he stops being an idiot. Might be a long wait. She swallows down a laugh.

‘No,’ says the boy. ‘Course you wouldn’t’ – like he blames her for not being a slut. ‘You told your mum and dad?’

‘Not yet,’ she says. ‘That’s today’s next bit of fun.’

Are you sure for definite that it’s mine?’

She’s not about to even, like, dignify that.

He’ll probably not once have raised his eyes from staring into his phone. Like he’s willing it to speak to him, to get him out of here. It’s giving him nothing. Maybe he’s got a hangover, clogging and clouding his reaction to her news – though really he’s always like this, she does know, you can’t tell what if anything’s going on in his head. The girl looks at the ugly dying town square laid out before them: its Victorian, streakily stained statues of whatever dead white men they’re meant to be; its fountains dry, shops shuttered up. The blank dead faces of all the still-empty buildings. Some of them’ll not be opening again ever, probably. But where’s the people? Even at this time there should be someone.

She says, ‘Where is everybody?’

‘It’s fucking early,’ says the boy. The girl hears the bleep of his phone as he lights it to read exactly how early. ‘Bollocks. Can’t believe you dragged me out here at this time. It could’ve waited. It’s not like it’s a fucking emergency.’

No, not like it’d seemed such a terrible emergency that he got himself out of his virginity right that night of the party, when she’d lied and told her mum and dad that she was staying at a friend’s. She’d not even been that drunk or anything, not really – she wishes now she’d got that excuse – though course he was. Even so he’d been more nervous than her. She’d let him kiss her and then put his hand where it’d not been before – where no one’s hand but her own had been before – and she’d told him with her eyes that yeah okay, they could … y’know. Why not? Not thought to make him use a condom ’cause … well, everyone’s an idiot once in a while. It’d been okay. It’d not been horrible. It’d hurt, but not like badly like she’d been frightened it might. It’d not been good or anything, you must need someone you actually properly love for that, or someone anyway who’s not a totally selfish clumsy drunken idiot. No, that’s sort of not fair. Sort of. She’d been so nearly falling in love with him back then, way back then, three or four weeks ago, kind of.

‘I sort of like it, though,’ says the girl. ‘Never seen the world so quiet before, so empty. It makes your head go peaceful.’

‘It’s just dead, is all,’ says the boy. ‘It’s fucking dead.’

‘Yeah well you need something going on between your ears to start off with, for you to feel the difference. It’s like there’s nobody else in the world, like it’s just ours, no one else’s.’

‘What the fuck are you on about?’

‘You think this is early, it’s nothing. I’ve been up for hours, too freaked-out to sleep, I was out of bed at like four, couldn’t believe it was even light that early, the birds were going mental.’

‘You what?’

‘The birds, they were really noisy, it was kind of amazing. I was a bit frightened at first, didn’t know what it was. Thought it was all in my head, this like twitchy kind of roaring coming from all around me. Then I figured it out, don’t think I’ve ever heard it before in my life. Not even on TV or YouTube or whatever. I couldn’t see a single one anywhere, I was stood there in the back garden not even dressed yet, but there must’ve been hundreds of them from how it sounded, thousands even. All this singing, all around me.’

The boy says, ‘I seriously have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.’

She’s not once since they sat down turned to look at him, but she can feel now his eyes on the back of her head, on the nape of her neck. A little tingling. He could reach out to stroke her hair, if he wanted. If he’s not sat too far off, which probably he is. Not that it’d be a good idea for him to touch her, like ever again. Plus anyway she can’t imagine any more what it’d feel like, what it’d make her feel. Or oh yeah wait, course she can: nothing.

He could reach out to stroke her hair, if he wanted. If he’s not sat too far off, which probably he is. Not that it’d be a good idea for him to touch her, like ever again. Plus anyway she can’t imagine any more what it’d feel like, what it’d make her feel. Or oh yeah wait, course she can: nothing.

She says, ‘Yeah well me neither. But it was just birds singing in the trees. The dawn chorus. I googled it. It was kind of freaky and kind of beautiful, that’s all I’m telling you. ’Cause that’s when I made up my mind. I’m going to have an abortion, okay?’

‘Yeah, do that, get shut of it.’

‘I’m not asking your permission, I’m telling you what I’ve decided.’

‘I said okay.’

‘I mean,’ says the girl, ‘it’s up to me, yeah? It’s my body, you don’t get a say. But I’m giving you the chance to tell me what you think. Try to talk me out of it, even, if you want. Not that you could.’

The boy stands, and leaps from the war memorial’s top step down onto the square’s flagstones. The girl flinches a bit from the hard smack of his trainers on the ground. She doesn’t raise her eyes as far as his face. His jeans hang low from thin sharp hips, showing his underwear. The girl looks away. As if it were anything she’s not seen before. He yawns theatrically and stretches in the morning light. He puts his mobile away at last in his pocket, and looks straight at her for the first time in like ever.

‘Do what you like,’ says the boy. ‘You will anyway.’

He walks off. The girl watches him go, his loose swaggering strides, as he crosses the square diagonally. The path he cuts through the world much broader than it needs to be; he’s only skinny, but takes up the space of a fat man. Which maybe one day is what he’ll be, that’d be funny. It’s only an ordinary, smallish town square, but it seems to take him a long time to be gone. The girl watches, he doesn’t look back, till finally he vanishes round a corner.

She sits on alone.

He’ll be crying now. Soon as he got out of sight he’ll have burst into tears, run crying to his mummy. And be texting later, trying to get her to change her mind. Which she won’t. Texting Oh please keep the baby, let me be a dad, I’ll be a good dad. No you won’t, you’ll be a terrible dad. Yeah okay I’ll be a terrible dad but let me be a terrible dad, please. In her head the girl can hear the whine that comes into the boy’s voice when he doesn’t get what he wants, it’s there even in his texts. Like a baby himself.

She leans forwards, draws her heels up onto the step she’s sitting on, wraps her arms about her legs and hugs them tight, her chin resting on her knees. Funny how totally she doesn’t fancy him any more. And once upon a time, a couple of weeks ago, she’d even kidded herself she might be falling in love with him. How weird is that? Like, as if.

Except he’ll not be like that, not really. He won’t tell anyone, not even to brag. It’ll already be gone from his head, he’ll have learned nothing. She can’t believe she let him have sex with her, her first and only time, of all the idiots she could’ve picked. She’d been only a teeny bit drunk at the party but for some reason she’d been acting all night like she was some other girl entirely, she didn’t know who. Dead embarrassing to think of it now. Though if you’d asked her mum – god, what’s mum going to say? – there’d not be any version of her that’d ever get in this kind of trouble. At thirteen. And now he’s left her to it – and so, like, was that it? Was that all the discussion she was going to get out of him, so little of a toss does he give? Didn’t think even to offer to go to the clinic with her. Can’t say she’s surprised, though she’s a bit surprised, ’cause it would’ve been nice if he’d been even slightly interested. Do what you want, you will anyway. Which was really unfair. As if any of this were what she wants. More his fault than hers, though yeah it’s not like she’d said no. And he could’ve been a dad if he’d wanted. He was this close. If he’d really, really tried she might’ve let him persuade her. Though of course not really. Just no way. It’s her life, her body to be in charge of what goes on in it, that’s not even a question. And if he’d used that lie again – I love you – this time she’d just have laughed.

She sits there, as if waiting for something. Not wanting to face her mum and dad’s disappointment just yet. Best though to get it over with. The rest won’t be a load of laughs but her mum will come with her, hold her hand, it’ll get done. Then it’ll be another day, she’ll be all normal again, and the summer holidays coming up soonish stretched out before her.

There’s a noise, a movement in the corner of her eye: across the square a man’s arrived to open the first of the morning’s shops. He stands leaning on a button while the shutters whirr and clank painfully up. Time to go. The girl unwraps herself from her limbs, stands, stretches. The world’s coming to life, so she should too. If she’s not got it all to herself any more then it’s time to move on. Going to be a sunny day, you can tell. The early sky’s palest blue thickening already. Time to go.

She lingers there a moment more, though, one hand curling under her tummy, the other in the small of her back, supporting her spine against an imaginary weight. Just pretending: there’s nothing to see or feel yet, it’s way too soon. And she’s not about to let it get much further – seriously, she’s not: the sooner it’s all sorted the better. Soon it’ll be gone and everything will be okay again but just for a second she can let herself sort of imagine it. This little, like, blob of flesh gathering itself together from the tiny bits and specks of her blood, slowly growing. This weird kind of parasite. It’s kind of amazing, even if it’s not got a soul yet – but then again who does? – kind of amazing, kind of gross. Almost worth it too, ’cause of the stress and anxiety – which have totally melted away now, she doesn’t know what she was so bothered about – getting her out of bed insanely early, making her walk into the garden like she was mad, just in her pyjamas, listening to all those birds going crazy. It was kind of weird, kind of beautiful. She’d be tempted to try to get up that early every morning, or at least once more so she could maybe record it on her phone, but she knows there’s just no way. And probably after a bit anyway it’d only end up doing your head in, like everything does sooner or later. Still, for a little while it’d been really good, something kind of magical, and she’d known in those moments just what she was going to do, felt that it’d all be sorted and she’d be free, that anything could happen, that a million billion secrets were being whispered in her mind.

Barney Walsh’s short stories have appeared, among other places, in Unthology 4 and 7ShooterThe Manchester ReviewCōnfingō, The Fiction Desk’s New Ghost Stories IIIThe Forge Literary MagazineThe Lonely Crowd, and Pin Drop Studio’s A Short Affair.

Image: x1klima, young couple in love, Flickr, Creative Commons