By Isabelle Ryan
Of course he never was a deep sleeper. Mutters and frets and often cries out. Needs someone to sleep with him, or at least share the bed. Better that way. Less and less it ends up being me, and there’s something sad in that. Inevitable, maybe. More choice now, and he wants things I can’t give anymore. But when all he wants is a warm body and a friend in the dark, I’ll join him. So it was this night in early 1945, when I found myself roused in the wee hours by a strange sound I couldn’t place. There was only concern. Not even a flicker of frustration at the disturbance.
It was a soft shushing in the dark. I stirred. Found the noise and lost it. Pricked an ear for his nocturnal murmurings and heard nothing. I shifted. Reasoned that whatever it was I could have dreamed it. As I drifted off it came again, and now I turned over to look at him.
He lay poker-straight. Covered by the sheet. Except his hands. These were out. Joined, like praying. But then he rubbed them. Wrung them. Scrubbed them. Like cleaning dirt that would not shift. I propped myself up. His eyes were closed, a furrow in his brow. And that shushing noise again. Not so soft now. Harsher. Sandpaper rough, and if I switched on the light I knew I’d see skin flaking dandruff white and settling on the sheet.
I sat up. Put one hand on his shoulder. Bony, sharp through his undershirt. Whispered his name. Then with my other hand separated those frantic fingers.
He murmured. Whimpered softly. His eyes opened. Wide and staring. No light in them. Not a flicker of the man I knew.
I swallowed. Carefully, I slipped an arm under his back and helped him sit up. He stirred then. Blinked twice. Then he turned to me.
“Hurts,” he said, and began again to pick at the skin between his thumb and forefinger.
“Don’t do that,” I said. A little sharp. Held his hands again to soften that. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
He gazed at me. “I don’t mean to.” He saw his poor hands for the first time. Turned them trembling round and looked at me again. “I don’t want to.” He put his arms around my neck and kissed me. I muffled protest in his mouth. Pulled back and met resistance: the clutch of his hands on my head. His tongue probed and then – a lurch of his chest, a rumbling hack in his throat – something thick and hot passed into my mouth. He released me then. Sent me sprawling to a floor suddenly wet in a room suddenly cold. Sepulchral. The window had fallen open, and on the bed my friend bled black from a mouth that spilled guttural sounds I’d heard before. Discounted as nocturnal, unconscious nonsense. But it was clearer now. Deliberate. He writhed and screeched black speech into the night, frantically tearing his hands into ribbons.