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Vague Visages Short Stories: Bunk Bed by Georgia Luckhurst

The first news story I remember being aware of was about two little old ladies holidaying together. They’d gone on one of those cruise trips specially organized for pensioners, the ones that float morbidly across international waters for months on end, like retirement homes but with the added attraction of life jackets. These two old ladies had slept in the cabin bunk beds, slotted congenially above one another. I always pictured them as spinster twins in matching blue floral pyjamas, sipping slowly at equally full cups of tea and racing to beat one another at the same New York Times crossword. I tried not to picture the conclusion, when the supports on the top bed snapped off the wall and gravity plunged the bunk onto its twin beneath.

We took a ferry to Spain every year when I was a kid, so I knew those cabins well. Their anaemic yellow lights pooled dismally behind my eyelids when I shut them, like sister puddles seeping into my pupils. I lay in our bunk bed in the room I shared with my younger brother, and I fretted over the inherent moral dilemma faced by the top bunk inhabitant. As the elder of us two, the top bunk was my default position and my right. On the one hand, I knew it meant I’d survive if the screws popped out, and I plummeted a metre and a half downwards onto the bed below. This was a win because I was seven, and I didn’t want to die yet. On the other hand, it meant instant death for my squashed and sleeping brother, and it worried me that my parents might resent me if I survived and he didn’t. Guy was psyched when our technologically-resistant household invested in a waffle maker that same year, but I couldn’t watch the press flatten the sizzling batter without feeling faintly queasy.

I graduated bunk beds by nine and gained a single in my own box room. Size-wise, it was also reminiscent of a ship cabin. But it was my own space, and it came with a silence to fill. Instead of whispering to my brother in the dark, I took to writing on the walls in a white gel pen, milky secrets in tiny letters. At fifteen, when we moved to a house with a conservatory and eggshell blue chairs, I got my first IKEA double and I stopped defacing walls.

When Guy phoned that night, I knew it had all begun with the bed. A few months before I’d returned to university — earlier in January than everyone else, to do resits — we’d been sitting in the lounge, Mum reading a copy of Cosmo while I watched TV. That was odd for a start. Jean wasn’t ordinarily a Cosmo fan. She was drinking a glass of red and wearing a worrisomely gauzy nightgown, and she looked like the stereotype of a fallen suburban woman.

“Huh,” she said.

“Hmm?” I gave my eyes a generous two second glance away from Notting Hill to see if she’d spilt her wine.

“It says here that sleeping in separate beds might be the key to a successful marriage. Ha!”

“Ha?”

“I could do with that. My own bed. No more of Chris’ snoring!”

I popped another Pringle in my mouth and let it sit there, a little too big for my mouth and scraping my gums. I didn’t like it when she referred to Dad as though he was just some man I was acquainted with by some happy accident of living arrangements. On TV, Hugh Grant was pretending to be a journalist after inadvertently sneaking into a press conference. Jean carried on oblivious.

“It says Helena Bonham-Carter does it. Her and Tim Burton. They have separate houses. It must be nice. Having that much space.”

“You have the conservatory,” I said, through the grit of another chewed crisp. She couldn’t deny that, so she shut up.

Two days before my train back to Manchester, I heard the rumble of a bed on the move. I was sitting cross-legged on mine, looking over Chemistry notes. They hadn’t made sense when I’d written them, and they didn’t make sense now, after a month of failing to prepare for the exams I was doing because I failed to prepare originally. I hadn’t told my parents I was taking resits. I didn’t think it was their business why I fucked up or on how great a scale; I subscribe to the belief that parents are there to revel in your successes and politely ignore your failures. 

The rumble was accompanied by the discordant chorus of Chris and Jean. Chris was doing the low, slow soothing of a man trying to settle a horse, and Jean was performing the role of impassioned, liberated woman. She knew what he was doing. Dad was pretending she was hysterical because it was easier than admitting she had the upper hand. When my mum set her mind on a thing, she could move mountains as well as beds.

I opened my door and surveyed the scene. It was the small trundle bed from the den. The den was Guy and mine when we were younger, where we’d hosted small and very teenage parties. There was one alcopop-pink stain, sort of shaped like a foot, next to the bookcase. It was a souvenir of those first anxious excursions into drunkenness. Every time I went into the den, I stroked it once with my big toe. We never really used the den anymore, though. I was at Manchester, and Guy had just started at Bristol. When we were home, we tended to retreat to our own rooms, so I could sit and stare at the walls, and Guy could smoke weed.

“Why are you moving the trundle bed?” I asked.

“Yes, Jean,” Dad said, glancing gratefully to me, “why are we moving the trundle bed?”

Mum, who had been bent over and holding onto the sides of the bed frame in a way that suggested she was willing to wheel it over Dad’s feet, straightened up and leaned against the wall.

“I’m moving it into my study for some space.”

“I don’t understand why you need space,” Dad said. 

“What about the conservatory?” I asked.

“I’m a bit sick of seeking refuge in the conservatory. And it gets very bright in there when the sun shines.”

Guy, snaking his head round his door, decided to chime in. “It does get quite bright in there when the sun shines.”

“Regardless,” Dad said, “of the glare, why do you need sleeping space, specifically? I’m not sleeping on my back anymore, Jean. The snoring hasn’t been that bad. You said yourself the snoring hasn’t been that bad lately!”

Guy very slowly recoiled his head and retreated into his bedroom.

“Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton have separate houses, Christopher! Houses! I’m fifty years old, and I need some space of my own. Try to understand, please, and stop being petulant about this.”

It was noon on a Sunday. I left them to continue their slow progress across the hallway and googled Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton, who I discovered had split up two months earlier.

I went back to university two days later and removed the mould growing inside my chest of drawers. My student loan had come in, and I went to the Arndale Centre and bought new bedsheets; a declarative snow white. I had the only double bed in the flat because I’d been the one to find us the property. I usually loved it. In mid-January, though, its expanse and new blanch made it resemble an iceberg, and our unreliable heating didn’t help. I slept like an Arctic explorer, wearing two jumpers and two pairs of long socks.

Resits were over after a week. I passed, and I bought myself a new pair of sheets to celebrate. They were lime green. My friends who hadn’t failed the first time around returned after another week,, and I thawed, warming back into a life that gave me a purpose I couldn’t figure out for myself. One night I was in bed with a boy, thinking about being in bed with another boy a year earlier. He had told me at drinks that evening that he sang jazz in his sleep, scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. Initially I wasn’t sure if it was given as a warning or as a line, something to make me laugh, or maybe endear me to him. But three hours later, I lay on my back, neck resting on his dead arm, and listened to him warble. It was more complex than snoring. I didn’t mind it. I remembered his stiller predecessor and decided I didn’t miss the quiet.

My brother phoned at one, and I stepped out of my room and into the kitchen. I stood by the microwave in my cardigan and cracked my neck.

“Did I wake you up?”

“No,” I said, “I’m just a little surprised, I guess. You never phone.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t a criticism. We just don’t phone.”

Guy breathed out. I sniffed and counted four seconds in my head. I thought about making something to eat and interrogated my stomach. I didn’t know if I was hungry or bored. I was bad at telling the difference, and I fiddled with the twist-tie on the bread.

“I think Mum and Dad are going to split up.”

“What makes you say that?” It was hard trying to make toast one-handed, and I stopped trying, not too disappointed. 

“Mum said she wants to leave him.”

“When were you home?”

“This weekend. I wanted a break. Why does that matter?”

“It doesn’t matter, I was just wondering.”

“Anyway. Mum said it. It sounded like she meant it.”

It was unusual for Guy to come to me with a problem. We were close, our bond forged by the bunk bed days, but our relationship was inverted. Guy, the younger, was the one to worry about me, the older leading by bad example. I’d never comforted him before because my selfishness had always been a characteristic fact, and he had grown stoic by necessity. I was uncomfortable, and my kitchen was cold, and I wrapped the cardigan more tightly around myself and moved to stand by the radiator.

“I think that’s one of those things Mum says when she thinks she’s being funny. I really do.”

“I know, but you weren’t there, Maeve. She sounded different.”

“Okay, well, maybe. But there’s no point worrying about it right now, when we can’t do anything. I’ll phone Mum tomorrow and get a feel for how things are, okay?”

I didn’t go back to my room straight after hanging up. I stood for five more minutes looking out the kitchen window at one malfunctioning streetlight. It was flickering like it had hiccups. When I climbed back into bed, I lay unable to sleep, detecting some unnamed absence in the room, as though I’d forgotten a thing, or misplaced it. It was half an hour before I noticed the scatting had stopped.

There are conversations to have on the phone — like I think our parents might be getting a divorce — and conversations to have in person — like Can you confirm whether you will be getting a divorce. That distinction might seem subtle. I decided ultimately, though, that worries can be voiced long distance but must be realized up close. That was why I didn’t phone Jean the next day. I kicked Ella Fitzgerald out of my bed and caught a National Express bus at half past eight that morning, making my pilgrimage to my childhood home before it could be ransacked by the legacy of Helena Bonham-Carter and Tim Burton.

I arrived at three in the afternoon, and my mother opened the door in the same diaphanous night gown she’d worn months before, the night she ruined Notting Hill. She held a steaming cup of tea in one hand and her reading glasses in the other, and as she led me to the kitchen table, she chastised me for not telling her I was coming. On the table top was an open Ikea catalogue, items of furniture circled in lavishly wide arcs.

“Guy phoned me,” I said, sitting down, while Jean floated further into the kitchen to make a second cup of tea.

“Well, that must be a first. Too nervous to ask us for more money?”

“No, he was worrying. About you and Dad.”

“Worrying?” she said, reaching for the sugar.

“He thinks you’re going to leave him, Mum.”

She yawned as she chivvied a teabag out of my mug and came to join me at the table. “Sorry. I haven’t been sleeping.”

“Maybe because you’re on the trundle bed.”

“No, it’s not the bed. I just haven’t been sleeping.” She sipped from her tea with one hand and turned pages with the other, cycling through the possibilities of a thousand promising Ikea-decked lives.

“Mum,” I said, “Mum. Please. It’s upsetting Guy, not knowing. And it’s insulting to me. Don’t play dumb. Just tell us. Whatever’s going on, tell us.”

When I was nine, I had sleep paralysis for the first time. I didn’t know that that was what it was until I was fourteen and my GCSE art teacher presented a slideshow on Henry Fuseli. The Nightmare is a painting depicting sleep paralysis before sleep paralysis had a name, which mapped onto my own clueless experience of what I had always thought was my unique terror. It happened every two or three months, and it bound my mute, immobile body to my mattress. The thing I hated most about it was how it made me fear going to sleep. My bed didn’t feel like mine. It had been colonized by threat. Sometimes I’d lie on my back holding my eyelids and thinking about pinning them open with clothes pegs.

The day Jean told me she was leaving Chris, I slept in my teenage bed for the final time. They’d be living in separate properties, my parents, most likely both small but unequally divided by the unjust division of spoils and bitterness. There’d be no space for Guy and me to both have fixed rooms of our own, and I thought about it as I fell asleep, how my teenage bed was no longer mine. I dreamed of opening an Ikea catalogue and the voice of Ella Fitzgerald jumping from the pages, a scat song projected from the magazine spine.

Georgia Louise Luckhurst (@glluckhurst) is a 20-year-old writer living in Scotland. She is currently studying towards a degree from the University of St. Andrews. Her first play is set to debut at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer with BoxedIn Theatre.

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