Four and a half seconds

Published in BFS Horizons #9

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Four and a half seconds

I look around the pub while Dan is gone. It’s busy, but not full. I’m sat on the long, red leather couch that runs along the side wall. I like it here. The couch is a little too soft after all the backsides that have been on it, so I sink down into it ever so slightly.

I should be on my phone, keeping myself occupied, like any normal person would be. Instead I’m desperately trying to conjure up the words he might say when he returns from the bar. It’s bound to be something funny, or at least cheerful, and I want to be ready. Nothing comes. Obviously I wouldn’t hear the words this far in advance anyway, even if it worked with Dan. I’m reduced to guessing, and it’s impossible.

I think there are two other couples on dates here. I suppose it’s a good spot – this place is relatively quiet midweek, and close enough to the station for getaways. Along the couch from me is another woman, sat alone while her date is at the bar. She’s got her phone out. She’s normal. I glance at the bar to see Dan say something to her date. I can’t hear what it is, but it makes him nod and smile. It will have been something knowing. Dan will have spotted he and the other guy are in the same situation, and he’ll refer to it. Everything he says is knowing. 

There’s a couple across from me who look like they’re on a first date. They’re talking non-stop with no back and forth. She has a monologue and then he has a monologue, while the other laughs. They’re both sat back, not getting too close. Dan and I have been leaning in toward each other for our past four dates, at least. Tonight I sat at the edge of the table to I could stretch out my legs along the side and make him look at them. Nice legs, I thought I heard him say. But he didn’t say anything, he just winked.

I’ve got a text. Good, it forces me to get my phone out. It’s from Dan. Stop looking at my arse, it says. Knowing. Knowing, even though he doesn’t really know. I smile, even though no-one is looking. Keep looking at my legs, I reply.

The problem is this. Since I was a teenager — since puberty, let’s say — I’ve been able to hear what other people are about to say, about five seconds before they say it. Well, more like four and a half seconds, to be precise. 

I can remember the moment I realised something strange was going on with me. For weeks I’d been struggling to speak to people, always interrupting them or being interrupted myself. People kept repeating themselves. Everyone, all the time. I wondered if there was something wrong with my hearing, or with everyone else’s hearing. I’d always loved talking to my friends for hours at a time, but now it seemed like every conversation I started fell apart instantly.

Then my Mum asked me one day what I wanted for lunch. ‘I don’t mind,’ I said. Nothing unusual there. But she asked me again, apparently annoyed at my indecision. ‘Okay, I’ll have soup,’ I said. She tutted, sighed. She had a funny look on her face. ‘Why do you keep answering questions before I’ve asked them?’ she said. ‘It is quite rude, you know.’

I had to stop and think about this. What did she mean? Then she said it again: ‘Why do you keep answering questions before I’ve asked them?’ Followed by: ‘It is quite rude, you know.’ But I heard it all differently this time. Slightly. Her words were quieter, less clear. They competed with the background noise of the house and the street outside. Only then did I understand that I hadn’t heard the question first time around, at least not with my ears. And now I thought about it, I realised that her lips hadn’t moved. I was too shocked to say anything to her, but I was certain that I’d heard it in my head before she said anything.

After that, I noticed it constantly. Constantly. Even when I was talking on the phone. Even in my dreams. My subconscious was just as good at hearing everything twice.

I took advantage of it at first. At school I would give the right answers to any questions asked in class. I’d hear the teacher or another student give the answer in my head, and then blurt it out myself. I don’t think I’d ever heard of the Hundred Years’ War before I answered that it was fought by ‘England and France, Miss.’ The weird thing was that by doing this I could change what people were going to say. So, Mrs Bradley in history didn’t actually say England and France, after I had said it myself. What she said was, directly to me: ‘That’s right, well done.’ I didn’t know if I was reading minds, tapping into a collective subconscious, or seeing — and changing — the future, but it worked just the same.

One day I wanted to find out exactly how far in advance I was hearing things. So I asked my friend Julia to name vegetables, and I timed exactly how long it took between hearing it in my head and hearing it for real. 

Carrot, I heard. ‘Carrot,’ she said, 4.456 seconds later. 

Aubergine. 4.781 seconds. ‘Aubergine.’ 

Broccoli. 4.662 seconds. ‘Broccoli.’ 

Tomato. Not technically a vegetable, but still, 4.519 seconds. ‘Tomato.’

Spinach. 4.303 seconds. ‘Spinach.’ 

 Julia wasn’t my friend for very long after this. I think she must have told people what happened, because a couple of times as I walking down the hall at school I heard people yell out the names of vegetables at me. I heard them twice.

It started to get me down after a while. I questioned every thought in my head, wondering where it had come from. I didn’t like not knowing if I really knew who fought the Hundred Years’ War. And I just couldn’t speak to people naturally anymore. I learned to cover for myself, pausing to let people say the things I knew they were about to say. But it was exhausting. I avoided conversation as much as I possibly could.

University was the worst. I was around so many new people, in such close quarters. I couldn’t get away from it. You know how most people get bored of being asked for the same information over and over — what degree they are doing, where you come from, whether you did a gap year, what you did on your gap year, which halls they live in, what A-Levels they did — well, imagine double the quantity, and imagine the sheer tedium of waiting four and a half seconds after hearing every question, knowing you are about to be asked it, and that there is nothing you can do about it. Four and a half seconds can be a very, very long time. 

I drank, a lot. Something I’d hardly ever done before. I had at least one bottle of cheap wine in my room at all times. At the union bar, every round had to come with shots for the table. This didn’t stop me hearing what people were going to say, but it did help me to find it all funny. When I was drunk I forgot to wait my usual four and a half seconds, and I’d just started laughing at everything I heard in my head.

 I got a first for my last essay. So funny. 

I might get off with that guy later. Hahaha. 

Do you want another drink? Hilarious. 

Let’s get a taxi home. lol. 

If I was vegetable girl at school, I was laughing girl at university. Most of the time, people didn’t end up saying the funny thing I’d heard them say. Or maybe they did, and I’d stopped paying attention. I managed to get a grip and return to my solitary, sober lifestyle, by the end of my degree. Apart from graduation — I couldn’t sit through that for three hours listening to the same ceremony twice, without being drunk.

And then there was Dan. We met through a dating site. I figured out long ago that online was going to be the best way for me to meet someone, if I was ever going to have a love life. You see, my weird hearing things thing doesn’t work in writing. I have no idea what a text or an email is going to say before I read it. That makes me incredibly nervous. I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack every time I open a message. But this way of communicating worked for me, once I got over the nerves. I could exchange messages with guys for weeks on the app, and I loved it. Until I blew it, that is. I would get so carried away, sending longer and more elaborate messages, full of detail — often invented — about my life, and probing questions for them to answer. I want to get inside your head, I would say. I had six or seven conversations on the go at any one time. 

If anyone suggested meeting in person I’d  put them off as long as possible. When I did meet the men who hadn’t lost interest, I was flummoxed. I could barely speak, trying to reconcile the free-slowing chat online with my stilted, deliberate way of talking in person. That sense of anticipation from getting an email was gone, when I knew exactly what they were going to say. I know for certain that most of my dates went badly because the guy would ask me to go home with them at the end of the night. I doubt they’d do that on a first date if they wanted to see me again. 

I usually said yes. Obviously I wanted to say no, instantly, when I heard things like So, you wanna come back to mine? in my head. But I couldn’t react instantly. I’ve trained myself not to. Sadly, four and a half seconds is just enough time for me to think myself into anything.

So, you wanna come back to mine?

Me after one second: Of course not! We don’t even get on.

Two seconds: Should I really just give up on him after that great conversation online?

Three seconds: Well, I’ll probably never see this guy again anyway.

Four seconds: Most people I know have had lots more sex than me.

Four and a half seconds: ‘So you wanna come back to mine?’ ‘Okay.’

And then, like I said, there was Dan. Our email exchange was short. After two or three messages, when I started asking my usual array of questions, he just said: Hey! I can answer all this in person… let’s meet. So we did. PS, he had said, I love that you’re so curious! 

I got to the restaurant way too early, and ordered some wine, red, large, to help settle my nerves while I waited. Dan spotted me straight away when he arrived, and came over to the table. That’s odd, I thought, he hasn’t said hello, nice to meet you, or anything like that. I haven’t heard a thing.

‘Hi, I’m Dan, he said, ‘great to meet you,’ as he leaned in for half a hug and a peck on the cheek. 

Erm, what!?

I froze. 

‘Are you okay?’ he said. 

He said. He said. I hadn’t heard this in my head either. Holy crap.  Something was wrong. I didn’t know what he was about to say.  I thought it might be the wine, even though alcohol had never had this effect on me before. 

Somehow I managed to muster a hello and a smile, and we sat down.

Can I get you a drink, sir?

That was the waiter, who I saw approaching the table. So it wasn’t the wine. It was Dan.

‘Can I get you a drink, sir?’

‘Oh, yes please. I’m just checking the menu. I’ll have…’

One G and T, coming up. And would you like another?

‘I’ll just have a gin and tonic, please.’

‘One G and T, coming up. And would you like another?’

I shook my head at the waiter and he hurried away. I was freaking out. Dan was sweet, though. He must have noticed I was uncomfortable, because he said he always felt awkward on first dates, too.

‘That’s why I have a minimum two-date policy. Let’s agree that no matter how badly tonight goes, we will meet again.’

I found myself waiting four and a half seconds before I responded to anything he said.

‘I agree,’ I said, like a lemon.

I just couldn’t relax. When our food arrived, I only picked at it, and eventually I blurted out that I wasn’t feeling well. Dan offered to see me to the station, but I didn’t hang around long enough to let him.

The next day I really did feel nauseous, and confused. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew I had to see Dan again. I text him: Hey, so sorry about last night. Butterflies, I guess. I’m feeling better if you want to try again. And again: Plus, you have to. Two-date minimum, remember?

He replied straight away: I’m in. I’m a stickler for policy. And again: Besides, I didn’t get to answer all of those questions you were going to ask me.

I was ready for him the next time. As the date got nearer, I became super excited. Just the thought of being around someone who could surprise me, who would force me react without thinking, was exhilarating. 

‘Tonight is going to be amazing, Dan. You’ll see. I’m going to be so quick-witted,’ was practically the first thing I said when we met.

I was joking, but it turned out to be true.

‘I hope I can keep up,’ he said. 

‘If you need a break just let me know.’ I was getting over-confident now. 

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I think I’m just going to be extra boring to compensate.’

Oh lord, I love not hearing what people are about to say. 

Dan has this habit I find so cute, of running his fingers through his hair when he laughs, and he was doing it all night long. His hair is dark and wavy, and was getting a little greasy, with all the touching. ‘I’ve messed up my style. I saw it in the mirror,’ he said at one point, coming back from the bathroom. ‘I’ll level the playing field,’ I said. I had my hair up, so I took out the clips and shook my head until it fell all over my face. It went in my food and I didn’t care. I felt young again. I was a child — not in a creepy way — who couldn’t hear any thoughts but my own.

I still had anxious moments, whenever we had to talk to the waiting staff. I was having so much fun I had to check myself to make sure I didn’t respond before they’d really spoken. It happened when a waitress approached to ask if our food was okay. I forgot — I heard her, and said, ‘It’s fine,’ before she’d even opened her mouth.’

‘Yeah, I hate it too when they interrupt your meal like that,’ Dan said.

I had the weirdest sensation after we’d left the restaurant, when we stood in the street looking at each other. I knew what he was about to say. I didn’t hear it, I just knew it. He was going to ask if he could kiss me. And I felt such power when, knowing it was coming, I jumped in and said: ‘Let’s go to the cinema!’

He was somewhat shocked. ‘The cinema? Okay, if you like.’

‘You were too slow,’ I said. 

He knew what I meant. Dan always knew what I meant.

‘Fair enough. I won’t hesitate next time!’

The film was good — even hearing all the dialogue twice — but it was long and it was late. I was wide awake throughout, but Dan started to fall asleep halfway through. I directed his head onto my shoulder. His head had slid down, gradually, until it was resting just above my breast. More comfortable, I guess. Then we had our first kiss, at least as far as I was concerned. Not lip to lip. Just my lips, kissing him all over his greasy hair while he slept. I was aiming for his brain. At the end of the film I shook him gently, and when his eyes were open I whispered in his ear: ‘So, you wanna come back to mine?’

Now, here, still, in the pub with the red leather couch, is Dan. I don’t think we can really call this a date any more, after eight or nine of these nights, and seven or eight mornings. I know Dan better than anyone I’ve ever met — clairvoyance and collective subconscious be damned. 

He comes back to the table, drink in each hand, smile on his face. You know what, it doesn’t matter what he’s about to say. Because I’ve got something to tell him. I hold my finger to my mouth as he sits down.

‘Don’t say anything,’ I say.

‘Why not?’

‘I said don’t say anything!’

‘Fine.’

‘Dan!’

‘Sorry.’ I flick his hand, and take a breath. This is harder than I thought it would be. Okay, I’m ready, I’m going to do it.

You forgot your change mate.

Argh! The barman is coming over. At the worst possible moment. I pause, while Dan stares at me, confused.

‘You forgot your change, mate.’

He turns around. ‘Oh, thanks.’

Back to me. I’ve lost my nerve now. Start again. Just say it. On the count of five. One, two, please, please let him say it back, three, I’ll die if he doesn’t, four, four and a half…

‘I love you, too,’ he says, and I smile from ear to ear, not minding the interruption at all.


The full edition on BFS Horizons #9, published in June 2019, is available here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46293809-bfs-horizons-9