Thump, Rattle

Published in The Nottingham Review, Issue 13

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Thump, Rattle

Julie hears a sound she cannot name. Not yet. Naming a sound gives it meaning, and so far this sound has none. Any name would imply a source, an intention, that has caused a sound to be. She can only guess.

This sound’s name is thud.

Thud. Thud. Thud, thud, thud.

It’s coming from the door. The door is what’s thudding. Julie is alone in the room. She knew that already, because she was awake when Martin left this morning. He must have known she wasn’t asleep, because he leaned over to kiss her on the back of the head before he left. Julie had listened to him getting dressed, including the jangle of his belt buckle as he lifted his trousers, the swoosh as he threw his jacket onto his back, and the tutting as he struggled with his cufflinks. Julie had named those sounds. She kept her eyes closed and stayed completely still, more still than any sleeping person could be, and let herself be held down by the heavy weight of a hotel duvet. 

She would have been happier without the kiss. At least she hadn’t felt it on her skin. Her hair was not as thick as it once was, but it was thick enough to cushion the blow of a man’s unwanted lips.

Thud. Thud. Thud, thud, thud.

There it is again. And another sound, once Julie concentrates hard enough. Thud, and a rattle. That’s the security chain, left hanging loose, insecure, and shaking with every contact.

Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.

Julie can’t move. She regrets it now, not moving while Martin was getting dressed. She could have left with him, getting away from whatever is on the other side of the door. She desperately wants to stretch. She wants to arch her back and stretch her arms out, pulling her shoulders until they almost pop. She wants her toes to reach the edge of the bed and wrap themselves around the rim of the mattress. She wants to stand up and free the wind trapped in her body, which will only happen when she bends her bowel in just the right way. She dare not do that. That sound has a name and it will ring out, in Julie’s experience, far too loudly.

 Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.

Julie blames herself for getting cornered like this. She had accepted the invitation to the weekend away with Claire and Michelle and Jen even though she didn’t want to go. Those three were what Julie called her demographic friends. Same sex, same age, same social class, similar houses, similar jobs. The four of them even looked alike. No surprise: bombarding a group of people with the same food, weather and fashion trends for forty years isn’t a recipe for diversity. Except they aren’t the same. Something about the wiring of a brain, Julie believes, is as unique as a fingerprint, and her wiring just doesn’t suit the environment she’s been put in. It’s Jen’s birthday next week and she asked for this weekend as a gift. She thought her friends would love the idea, and the others probably did. Julie hated it. Why couldn’t Jen ask for something Julie could buy and be done with? Why did she demand her time and her volition? Those belong to me, Julie thought.

This isn’t the hotel she and her friends had booked into. They met Martin in town, in the first pub they’d come to after a sedate dinner. Julie was bored. She had wanted something to happen. Anything. She wanted Claire’s car to break down in the middle of nowhere. She wanted Michelle’s handbag to be stolen from the back of her chair. She wanted Jen to end up in A&E with alcohol poisoning. She wanted to go off and sleep with someone. It was something out of the ordinary to talk about, an unexpected event to skew and squeeze into the narrative. As there was only one of those imagined events Julie had the power to bring about, that was the one that was going to happen. Volition, she thought.

So when this man looked over at her while she stood at the bar, looked her up and down, in fact, the decision was made. He didn’t know that. He didn’t know he’d already succeeded. Julie was going to see what he did next. She was going to judge him and test him and figure him out, and then she was going to have sex with him. She signalled to her friends she was going to the loo, but instead she went to sit on her own, around the corner where the man could see her. He joined her a minute later while she looked at her phone. He was good-looking, with dark grey hair, and clothes that were plain and expensive. He wore a wedding ring.

‘Have you forgotten where your friends are sat?’ he said.

‘Not at all,’ Julie said. ‘I just thought you might like the opportunity to talk to me as well as look at me.’

Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.

Martin played it well. Just by coming over to her he had declared he was interested. After that, all he had to do was be normal and let the evening pass pleasantly, until it was time to go. He talked about himself. Julie talked about herself. Neither of them paid attention to what the other was saying because they didn’t need to. He’s probably a very interesting man, Julie thought. Maybe even a nice man. Some of them are both. Some of them are more than walking penises. Tonight, it didn’t matter either way.

When Julie was ready to leave the pub with Martin last night, ‘Enough,’ she had said, and stood up. She went to find her friends again. They’d been taking turns craning for furtive glances for the past hour, so they knew what she was up to. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ Julie said. ‘Something has happened.’

The first physical contact Julie had with Martin was as he opened the door to his car, and put his hand on the small of her back as she got in. It was a BMW. Martin took the road heading out of town, and drove quickly. They went downhill, turning off the A-road with its lights and white lines, and down a narrow country lane. Julie had sunk back into her seat and switched off. She got sleepy.

Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.

By the time Martin had pulled up in front of the hotel, she didn’t feel much like sex anymore. But she did want to go inside. It was a nice hotel, probably nicer than any other scaffolder’s wife was going to sleep in tonight. She knew she’d have the sex, too, once she was in a bed beside a man that wanted her and there was nothing else to do. 

Julie is glad she slept with him. It wasn’t that she enjoyed it. Sex for Julie is always an aesthetic pleasure. She can’t orgasm unless she’s watching herself in a mirror, and even then only certain angles work. The only mirror in the room is on the back of the door – the thumping door – and it doesn’t point at the bed. Julie is glad because this morning she is a new person, and it isn’t in her to want to change back to a previous version of herself. This isn’t the first time she has cheated, but it is one of the times, and the first time she’s done it here, in this town, in this bed, with this man. This doesn’t mean she isn’t scared of what’s happening now. She doesn’t want sleeping with Martin to be the last thing she ever does. But it is something she has done.

‘My advice is to always remember what lies you have told,’ Martin had said, after they’d finished.

‘I lied when I told you my name is Claire,’ she replied.

Thud, rattle. Thud, rattle. Thud, thud, thud, rattle, rattle, rattle.

No, it’s time to be honest, Julie decides. Thud is too neutral. If I drop my phone, or my bag, or my book on the floor it might land with a thud. But I wouldn’t have thrown it, I wouldn’t have meant it. This sound is that of a hand being directed with force at the door. At Julie. It’s not even with knuckles. The sound is loud but it’s too dull for that. This is a thud made by the fleshy underside of a fist. It’s a thump.

Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.

Julie decides to move. She’s had enough of the deadlock. She slithers out of bed without lifting the duvet, until she’s kneeling on all fours on the floor. Her ears are full of blood but she’s pretty sure she hasn’t made a sound. There’s an alarm clock on the bedside table showing 7.20am. Propped up against it is a business card for a minicab firm, with a few words scribbled in the margin. ‘Call them for a lift – my account. M.’ How sweet.

Julie lifts herself up onto her tiptoes. She creeps toward the door. Past the antique desk and its brass handles. A level of sophistication the guests probably adore. Past the tea tray with the kettle and the mini cafetiere. That delicate little thing must be a hassle for the staff to clean, extracting the soggy grinds from the bottom. Julie wonders what hidden dirt they have left untouched elsewhere in the room as recompense. Past the alcove and its fitted shelves, not even the tiniest gap between wood and wall. Past the chair in the corner, one of those attractive, comfortable chairs with the round back that no-one ever has in their own house. Martin pays far too much for his pleasure, she thinks.

Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.

She is inches from the door now. If someone’s on the other side, the two of them are well within touching distance of each other. She sees her body in the mirror. That would have been useful last night. 

Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.

There’s a peephole and Julie wants to look through it. She places her fingertips on the door, slowly, silently. One tip at a time. She shifts her weight and lowers her face towards the door. Cold metal on her eye socket. On the other side, coming into focus, nothing at all. The blank beige of the wall on the other side of the corridor, and nothing else. Whoever is there, whoever is thumping, has placed himself out of view.

Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.

The door vibrates against Julie’s skull. She felt that one. She wonders about putting the chain on the door. So he can’t get in. Does he want to get in, or just make her hear him? She clasps the end of the chain between her thumb and forefinger, then pulls it tight. At that moment:

Thump. Thump. Thump, thump, thump.

No rattle. Julie has stopped the rattle. She changed the sound. What if he noticed? But she wants him to notice, she decides. She wants him to notice. Julie lifts her arm, and draws her fingers together into a fist. She sends her hand flying back toward the door with all the strength she has:

Thump. Thump. Thump, thump, thump.

These are her sounds. Her thump. Her fist. She wants him to notice. She lets go of the chain and does it again:

Thump, rattle. Thump, rattle. Thump, thump, thump, rattle, rattle, rattle.

Her rattle, too. Without stopping to think again Julie grabs the door handle and flings the door open in one movement. There he is, leaning up against the wall to the left of the door.

‘Hello, Martin,’ she says.

He’s frozen, his face pointed down at the floor. ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.’

‘Don’t look away. You’ve seen my body before.’

‘I thought I’d left something in the room, but I don’t need it.’

He backs away, a few paces. He looks at her like he’s asking permission to leave.

‘Was it all for this, Martin? Did last night happen just so you could bang on this door in the morning?’

‘There’s no harm in it.’

‘Please go away now.’

Julie goes back inside. She puts the chain on the door, thumps it one more time, and then goes to get dressed. She phones down to the front desk. She asks them to order her a cab, and to send someone upstairs to remove the man loitering outside her room.

This story appeared in issue 13 of The Nottingham Review, published April 2019:—april-2019.html