Mandy was propped up in her bed, notebook laying open on her lap, when James walked back in to the room with a toothbrush dangling from his lips, peering thoughtfully at a leaflet he’d picked up from the table.
“It says here that there’s a bridge with a sculpture of a sheep’s head on it,” he mumbled between brushes. Foam gathered at the edges of his lips and she stifled a laugh when he looked up, frowned at her and left the room. He emerged from the bathroom moments later, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and flopped down on the bed next to hers.
“How early do you want to set off tomorrow?” he asked, head propped up on his arms as he looked at her.
“Depends on whether you keep me awake,” she joked, but there was an element of seriousness to her tone. For as long as she had known him, James had suffered occasionally from nightmares that dragged him screaming from sleep. Their first childhood sleepover had been terrifying; her mum had come sprinting in the room when she heard the screams, first his then hers, and they had sat up in the kitchen swinging their legs on the breakfast bar stools and drinking their hot chocolate until a very apologetic Mrs Hunter arrived. After that, she had learnt to recognise the signs and, although infrequent, when the nightmares came she was good at soothing him in his sleep. Many times he had woken up clinging to her pyjama shirt while she stroked his face with the back of her hand. Even as adults, she still woke up to the occasional phone call in the middle of the night to hear him panting and panicked on the other end of the receiver.
In lieu of a reply he pulled the pillow out from under his head and threw it at her.
“You love me really,” she teased when she had pulled the pillow off of her face. He grunted in response, but she saw the smirk on his lips.
She was pulled from a dream where gulls were circling her by something that wasn't immediately obvious. Laying still for a moment, she listened for any tell tale creaks in the walls, any sign that something was amiss, then opened her eyes. There was a faint light over on James' side of the room that gave the walls a grey look and she twisted in the bed to peer over at him. He was on his phone, tapping away at the screen, his eyes shielded by the glare on his glasses. Soon enough, he seemed to sense her looking at him and flopped over to face her.
"What time is it?" Mandy still felt faintly groggy from sleep, but as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw his expression was solemn. "Is everything okay?"
Without a word he flicked on the lamp between their beds, fiddled within until it was dim enough to stop them squinting and held his phone up by way of explanation.
"Daryl again?" Mandy glanced over at the clock; two thirty in the morning. In the low light she could have sworn James' eyes were puffy.
"He's relentless," he said finally, "I've warned him I'll have to block his number if he doesn't stop but that won’t exactly stop him from coming in to my work and starting up again."
"I know I said this before… but do you want to tell me what happened?" she said quietly, watching him carefully. He sighed and rolled back on to his back, staring at the ceiling.
“We got drunk one night, started arguing about… something… I can’t even remember what. He got really angry when I said that I didn’t want to go home with him and ended up hitting me.”
“James!” Mandy gasped, reaching across the gap between their beds to touch his arm. He smiled at her weakly in return and shrugged against the pillow.
“’S’okay. I ended things there and then. Kind of figured that I deserved better than that. But he hasn’t really given up on trying to apologise since.” He said it simply, without feeling, but his face took on that sad, guarded look again. He sat up before she could say anything else and swung his legs out of the bed. Pulling off his glasses, he rubbed his eyes and smiled sleepily at her. “I’m going to get a drink. Water?”
She watched him pad out of the room, lanky and slightly clumsy and decked out in the ridiculous fleece pyjamas she’d seen him wear so many times before. He left the bedroom door slightly ajar, so she could watch him as he moved about the kitchen and searched the cupboards for glasses. She laid back and listened to the glug of the tap, his footsteps on the stone floor and then the door closing gently behind him. After he placed two tumblers down on the bedside table and folded up his glasses he paused, looking down at her with an unfamiliar expression on his face; confused and solemn. Without a second thought she peeled back her duvet and patted the space beside her on the mattress.
“Come on,” she said softly, as he twisted his lips boyishly. After a pause, he slid in to the bed next to her, threw an arm across her waist and nestled his cheek against her shoulder. She held him firmly, thread her fingers through his thick hair and stroked him gently. The last time she’d held him in the same way had been when Blackie had been put down, his childhood pet gone forever, and he had been at least a foot shorter. With his height now he had to curl his legs up to stop his feet from dangling out from under the duvet, one leg slung over hers. It was strangely comfortable, like having a weighted blanket anchoring her down.
“Sorry I never told you. I was embarrassed,” he said quietly, his breath tickling the exposed skin on her collarbone. Then it was her turn to shrug.
“Don’t apologise, just remember you can tell me anything, okay?”
He nodded against her shoulder, squeezed her tighter and sighed.
“Night, Mandy,” he whispered as she felt his body relax against her.