Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Ben Ingber


Itch. It’s been going on for months. I don’t have a rash, I just itch. My doctor recommended I change my washing powder. That didn’t work so he recommended I avoid hot baths and showers. That didn’t work either so he recommended I change my diet. No improvement. I went back last week and he suggested I change my washing powder. 

I reminded him that I’d tried that already. ‘Yes, yes, I know, I know,’ he said. ‘But why not change it again?’ I didn’t see the sense but I did it anyway. Nothing has improved. I still itch.

I’m underneath Pentonville Road at rush hour, on my way home from another job interview. My tie is stuffed into my jacket pocket and my shirt is untucked. The tube train is crowded with commuters. I am slouched forward against the curve of the doors.

A newspaper catches my eye. It’s open on the obituaries. ‘Died at home ... short illness ... no reprieve …’ And then I am shocked because I see the deceased’s name: ‘Annie Mallory’. For a ridiculous moment I believe the article is about my Annie. I pocket the page.

Camden is windy and wet. Commuters file along the street to the bus stop, each trying to shelter themselves however they can. In the distance, an umbrella flips inside out, throwing its metal arms to the heavens. I light a cigarette and walk the other way, making it to the flat just as the rain turns torrential.

I don’t know how Annie came to own the place. It’s nice but very small. It’s only got one bedroom so Annie and I often sleep together in the bed. Sometimes she’ll tell me to go on the floor. That’s OK by me. I don’t like touching in bed when I’m trying to sleep. Especially recently, what with the itching.

Annie is on her way out as I let myself in. She has dyed her hair red. ‘It looks good, doesn’t it?’ she says. I agree it does, and she looks pleased. ‘I’m off to work,’ she tells me. I slip inside and close the door as quickly as I can, before she has the chance to ask about the interview.

In the bathroom I strip and cake my body in calamine lotion. I cloak myself lightly in a large pinkish towel and pace about a bit to let the air harden the cream on my skin. Ten minutes of that and I change into my old cotton pyjamas. I feel much better. I smoke a cigarette, sitting on the sill of the huge sash window in the living room. My legs dangle over the edge. The rain has stopped and the sun is out. Early evening is a pleasant, quiet time on our road. I watch the street sweepers work for a while. They don’t see me. 

No one looks up in London, unless there’s a special reason to.

When Annie gets home she gets straight into the shower. The lasagne I’ve prepared is cooked so I leave it on a low heat until she’s ready.

Over dinner I try to start a conversation. Pointing at the pinkish towel, I say: ‘I can bleach that back to white if you like.’ She tells me not to bother. ‘It still works,’ she says. ‘A towel’s a towel.’

We eat in silence for a while. ‘Four months,’ she says finally, putting her knife and fork down.

She’s talking about how long it’s been since I’ve worked, since I’ve paid anything towards bills or rent. ‘I know,’ I say. To brighten the mood I ask, ‘Are you busy on Monday?’

She nods. ‘Some of us work,’ she says.

I persevere. ‘I might go to a funeral, Monday morning. I thought you’d like to come.’

‘Who died?’

I pass her the article that I found on the tube train. ‘You did,’ I say.

‘If only,’ she says, passing the page back. She is joking, of course.


*   *   *


‘Another?’ I say, waggling my empty beer bottle in the air. We’re drunk in a pub on Camden Road. Annie wears a knee-length white skirt and a short-sleeved brown top. She looks autumnal.

The queue at the bar is three deep. There’s a man next to me with bright red trousers and a pretty girl on his arm: she is pale and slim, with long dark hair. They laugh together and she touches his hand. I look away, order the drinks.

‘Do you think red trousers would suit me?’ I ask Annie a few minutes later.

‘What sort of red?’

‘Red like your hair,’ I say.

She shrugs; a drunken, exaggerated shrug. ‘It’s late. I want to go home.’

Outside, beer-sodden urbanity crashes down on us like waves, we’re drenched in it. Neon lights like pyrite sell hope to the susceptible; for the rest, cabbies and dealers offer the promise of a one-way ride, anywhere you want to go, all things possible.

We ignore it all and walk on.

Once we’re back in the flat, I make a pot of tea and we sit together on the sofa. Annie’s hair hangs scraggily over her face. She looks tired suddenly. Tired and worn.

‘I hate this city,’ she says. ‘I’ve got no place in it anymore. Look at me! What have I got?’

‘This flat … your job …’ I say. And then, tentatively, I add, ‘Me …’

‘Yeah. You.’ she says. She looks around the room, as if she’s seeing it for the first time. ‘What a ridiculous life.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I say. I’m slurring a little. I take out my cigarettes. There are two left. I light them and pass one to her. ‘Really,’ I say. ‘About the interview. I’ll do better next time. I’ll try harder —’

She screams. It’s a short, high squeal that makes me jump. She throws her cup across the room and it shatters against the oven, spraying tea everywhere. Lowering her head, she begins to cry.

‘It’s OK,’ I say.

It isn’t, of course.

Hours pass and I am still awake. I look in on Annie, passed out on her bedroom floor. The curtains are open and the room glows from the streetlight outside. I look at her face in the yellow light for a while. She looks her age; she looks autumnal. I get a glass of water and crawl into bed. Sometime later Annie joins me under the covers. We don’t speak. Over the next half hour she nudges me nearer and nearer to the edge until, finally, I’m all out
of mattress.

Eventually I move onto the sofa in the other room, where the itch keeps me up until dawn.