It started with him taking forever in the bathroom—thirty-minute showers, an hour in the tub, a shower in the morning and every evening. On weekends, he started having a bath at midday as well. I assumed the obvious thing, in terms of what he was probably up to. But then I added it up one Saturday night, and he’d spent two and a half hours in the bathroom that day—so that’s when I finally say something. I talk about damp and black mould. I say about the water bill, I ask him if he’s going to make up the difference when we get stung for it this quarter. But Stu’s not bothered. He just sits there on the other side of the kitchen table and sort of shrugs with that stupid grin on his face. He says it isn’t an issue, then goes to the back door to smoke a spliff. When he lights up, the breeze blows the smoke back into the kitchen. It gives me a headache.
Sitting at the table, watching him, I say, “I’m not cool with you wanking in the shower, if that’s what you’re doing. Or in the bath.”
And Stu, he laughs and says, “Relax, Lisa. I’m not doing that.”
“So what are you doing?”
“I’m just . . . ” but he trails off.
For a moment I look at him, there in the doorway with his back to me, the purple evening sky beyond him. I look and I wonder how we ended up just being housemates, how nothing ever happened between us after that one drunken kiss at uni, how five years later we’re locked in friendship instead, perpetual housemates.
“I just like a long soak,” Stu says finally.
He goes out with his mates a few nights later, and at 3am I wake up to noises downstairs. Banging around, cupboards opening, closing, the kettle coming to the boil. I lie in bed, listening in the dark, deliberating whether to go down there. One time, he put cereal in the oven and nearly burned the house down.
I get up, grope around in the gloom for my dressing gown, and go downstairs.
I find Stu in the kitchen. He’s standing in front of the kettle, staring intently as it rumbles towards boiling.
“Watching won’t make it go any faster,” I tell him.
Slowly, he turns his head towards me. Slowly, his mouth stretches into a grin.
“Good night?” I ask, smiling, unable to help myself.
He nods in a way that demonstrates his current lack of fine motor skills. “Yeah,” he says.
“You’re very drunk.”
“I’m not too bad,” he replies, returning his attention to the kettle just as it comes to the boil.
He reaches for it, moving like he’s underwater. He grasps the handle of the kettle and pulls it up from the countertop. Then he shuffles his feet, rotating on the spot until he’s looking at me again. He stares, glassy-eyed, grinning lopsidedly. He’s on something. Not just alcohol, not just weed. Pills, maybe.
He stands in the middle of the kitchen, holding the kettle, staring at me.
“You okay?” I ask.
A slow nod.
“Maybe put the kettle down,” I say. “You just boiled it.”
Giggling, going hurr-hurr-hurr, he raises it up instead, dangles it over his head. His grip is loose, and the kettle sloshes and bows and dips in the air.
“Stop it,” I say. “You’re going to scald yourself.”
Stu pauses, and for a moment it’s like he’s going to tip the kettle and pour the boiling water over himself. The moment lingers, and I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking about—it’s in his eyes, this awful idea, and it’s like he knows I’m imagining it, too. That’s how it feels, anyway. But then, huffing dramatically, like a kid who’s been told he can’t do something, he lowers the kettle. As he places it on the worktop, the tension in my stomach dissipates.
“Go to bed,” I tell him. “I’ll bring up some water.”
He blinks at me.
“Stu,” I say, more firmly. “Go to bed. I’ll bring you some water.”
That broad smile again. Then he lurches towards me. I make as if to catch him, but he stumbles past and down the hallway towards the stairs.
The sound of him going up, heavy footfalls on the carpet.
I breathe out. Go to the cupboard for a glass, then to the sink to run the tap. On my way out of the kitchen, I put the kettle back on its base and switch it off at the wall. Then, for good measure, I unplug it altogether.
When I go into Stu’s room, he’s lying on his bed, fully clothed, an arm flopped over his eyes.
“You’re going to feel like shit in the morning,” I tell him.
“Sit up. Here’s your water.”
Stu props himself up on one elbow. He stinks of cigarettes and stale beer. Blinking, he gazes up at me. His pupils are massive. That stupid grin again. “You’re so nice.”
“Yeah, too nice,” I reply, thrusting the glass of water at him. “Drink.”
He takes the glass from me. He spills some of it, although that’s my fault—I filled it too much, considering the state he’s in. He raises the glass to his mouth and slurps at the water like a child. Then he makes a face and spits the water back into the glass. I may have a soft spot for him, but there’s no escaping it: he can be gross.
“It’s too cold,” he says, grimacing, looking up at me with eyes full of betrayal.
“It’s from the tap,” I tell him. “It’s not that cold.”
“It’s too cold,” he says again, holding the glass out for me to take. “Why’d you give me such cold water?”
I take the glass and put it on the bedside table. He lies back down. The arm goes back over the eyes.
“You’re going to feel like shit in the morning,” I tell him again. Then I go to the bedroom door, switching off his light as I leave.
“Night,” I say.
“Night,” he groans.
In my bed, in the dark, I hug a pillow close to myself and imagine it’s him. Imagine we’ve been out together, with his friends, who know me as his girlfriend and not the girl-who’s-his-housemate.
Stu’s still in bed when I’m getting ready for work the next morning. I try not to make too much noise as I go around the house getting ready, even though his door is shut and he sleeps like the dead anyway. Before I leave, I write a note, go into the bathroom, and tape it to the outside of the shower cubicle. It says: 10 minutes maximum!
Later, when I’m on my lunch break, I go out to the office building’s courtyard and sit on one of the benches. I check my phone. There’s a message from Stu, a video clip, sent an hour ago. It’s of him in the bathroom, from the chest up. He’s got bed hair, and his eyes are bleary and a little bloodshot. Behind him, the shower is on—you can hear the hiss of the water. He looks around himself, faux-sheepish, then to camera he says, “Eleven minutes and counting, Lisa!” and the video ends.
I’m pissed off, but it doesn’t keep me from laughing. I should’ve known the note would only spur him on.
I text him: knob
He replies: I’m not sending you dick pics
Me: surprised you’re not still in the shower
Him: No. Bath now.
Me: the shower was on in that video
Me: please tell me you’re not serious
Him: Lisa, if I want to shower, then bath, that’s up to me. I pay my share of the bills. Fuck sake.
I sit there, annoyed. Above, crows and pigeons criss-cross from roof to roof. I picture him lying contentedly in the bath, condensation running down the tiled walls. I bet he hasn’t even got the window open. I bet it’s tropical in there. Sweltering. A word comes to mind: thermophile. It comes from somewhere deep in memory. Biology at school maybe, or a documentary I’ve seen some time or another. I search for the word on my phone, find the Wikipedia page. Living things, mostly micro-organisms, that live around deep-sea vents where the water temperatures are high. Or in the scalding pools at Yellowstone. They need the heat to survive. Names like pyrococcus furiosus and pyrolobus fumarii and thermus aquaticus. My phone screen fills with vaguely biological, vaguely alien shapes in greyscale, or shades of blue, or shades of red.
I text Stu: I’m living with a fucking thermophile
He doesn’t reply.
My lunch hour ends, and I go back to the office.
When I get home from work I’m expecting him to be in the bathroom again, but that’s not where I find him. He’s in the living room instead. Sitting in the raggy armchair, hunched over his laptop, he doesn’t notice me. He’s absorbed. It takes a while for him to notice me standing in the doorway, but when he does it’s like he comes to life.
He’s been reading about thermophiles all afternoon.
“Look at this one,” he says, turning the laptop for me to see.
An image on the screen, organic and alien shapes, microscopic life. Stu talks about temperatures, pressures, sulphur levels. I haven’t seen him so engaged with something in a long time.
“Okay,” I say, holding up a hand. “What have you taken?”
He looks at me.
I look at him.
“I microdosed this morning,” he says eventually. “But that’s all. I’m fine, honestly.”
But now he returns his attention to the laptop, to the shapes on the screen. For a moment it’s like he’s trying to see something more. Something behind the shapes, maybe. Or something in the shapes. Like reading a menu written in a language you know a little of, but not enough. A language you forgot.
When he looks at me again, his expression changes. It hardens. He says, “You’re a fucking drag, do you know that?”
I stand in the doorway, dumbfounded.
“Just fucking live a little, Lisa. So what if I like the warmth?”—and the way he says that, the warmth, it’s like he says it with a capital W. That’s how it sounds, like how some people when they talk about god, you can tell whether they’ve capitalised it or not in their head—“The warmth is nice,” he says, “it’s fucking beautiful, it’s . . . ”
He looks away from me, off to the side, like he can’t find the words, like he’s lost the thread of what he was saying. I’m holding my breath. Then, suddenly, his anger dissipates like steam.
Stu closes the laptop. He stares at the carpet in front of him. Then, silently, almost solemnly, he stands up and brushes past me, going out to the kitchen.
When I go in there after a few minutes, he’s at the back door, smoking a joint. It’s black-dark outside, could be outer space, could be the Mariana Trench. He stands there, framed by darkness, and it’s like he could just lean forward and disappear into it. The smell of the joint reaches me, but I don’t say anything.
Live a little, he’d said.
I’ve been holding my bag this entire time, so I put it down. I walk the length of the kitchen until I’m standing right behind him.
I don’t give myself time to think.
I grab his arm, turn him around, take the joint from his mouth, and kiss him.
I wake up on the sofa. The TV is on, the volume muted. A car chase plays out in silence. A bus explodes without a sound.
Apart from the TV, the living room is dark. It feels very late. Or very early. Sitting up, I look at the clothes discarded on the floor. Some of them are mine, some are Stu’s. I’m still wearing my t-shirt.
I get up off the sofa and put on my underwear.
Out in the kitchen the light is on, but the back door is shut. I glance up at the clock: it’s nearly 1am. I walk to the back door and open it in case Stu’s out there. The cold hits me like a wave. I go out on to the back doorstep and peer into the blackness, my breath coming out in clouds. I say his name in a stage whisper. When he doesn’t reply, I go back inside.
At the bottom of the stairs, I hear it: the shower is running.
I’m not even angry. Not this time, not now. I go up the stairs, almost creeping, as though it’s important that my footfalls are soft, elegant. I think about going in and joining him—he’s bound to like that. It’d be adventurous, fun.
I’m standing in the darkness of the landing and I’m about to open the bathroom door when I stop myself. I can’t just burst in. So I knock. When he doesn’t respond, I knock again. When he doesn’t respond a second time, I assume it’s because he can’t hear me over the sound of the shower.
I stand on the landing, deliberating, not wanting to make a fool of myself.
Live a little, he’d said.
So I open the bathroom door.
It’s dark—he hasn’t got the light on—and the heat comes out like a slow, thick breath. Steam, rolling over me, embrace of a hot wet phantom. My face goes slick with moisture. The steam envelopes. It’s like the old TV show, fucking Stars in Their Eyes—tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Madonna.
I reach in and pull the cord for the light. It doesn’t help, just illuminates all the vapour, a glowing white mist that makes my eyes ache. I step into the bathroom. Slick tiles beneath my feet. I put a hand to the wall to steady myself. Everything is moist. Everything runs and dribbles with condensation. It’s like being inside a lung.
Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Elton John.
I step forward, slowly, and the shower cubicle materialises out of the mist. The shower’s running, hot water spraying, but the cubicle is empty. And now I realise that, to the left of me, the sink’s tap is running, too. He’s got every source of hot water going at its highest setting.
He’s creating a jungle. A hot spring. A hydrothermal vent.
Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be pyrococcus furiosus.
I almost laugh. I turn and take two steps towards the bath, misjudge and bang my knee against the side of it. He’s in the bath, I can see him, an amorphous pink shape below me, obscured by the steam. He’s sleeping. My right foot knocks something—the kettle, lying on its side on the tiles.
“Stuart,” I say, not knowing why I’m keeping my voice down. “Stuart, stop fucking about.”
A low moan from the bath. From him.
Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be pyrolobus fumarii.
I crouch down.
Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be—
Livid pink, scalded wrinkled skin, blisters, red welts, like if you touch it, it might tear. A joint of gammon slow-cooked all day, that’s the colour, that’s the tone, and lips as red as blood and a moan, another moan, is it him or is it me I don’t know, and my god the water is pink, pink with his blood that’s—what?—seeping out of him somehow, seeping out like osmosis, or maybe it’s blisters which have burst, leaking fluid, leaking him, out into the scalding water. Tonight Matthew I am thermus aquaticus, tonight I’m going to broil myself, tonight I’m going to give myself over to the wonderful warmth, the lovely warmth, I just like a long soak, a good long soak—
Stu opens his eyes.
He opens his eyes, looks at me, and whispers my name, his lips stretching, splitting, dribbling blood, shock of white teeth surrounded by hot pink flesh.
“Join me,” he whispers.
I couldn’t get him out of there. I tried, but he was a dead weight. I tried, but all he did was laugh. I tried, but his skin was so slick, so tender, so fragile. I only made it worse. The arm I was pulling, I only made it worse. Like a long rubber glove, coming off in bits.
After the funeral.
After the investigation and the inquest.
After all that, I ended the tenancy and moved out. Because there’s only so long you can take going to the bathroom and dealing with flashbacks. Only so long you can sit on the toilet next to the bath you watched your friend die in. Or your lover. Your boyfriend. I don’t know.
The flat I live in now doesn’t have a bath.
I am able to use the shower again. It took me a while to get to that point. For a while, I just used wet wipes. But you can only get away with that for so long. People notice, eventually.
Every night now, I force myself into the shower.
I wash, and then I make myself stay a little longer.
Standing there with the water raining down on me, I think about him. Breathing in steam, I think about what could have been. I think about the life we could have had.
And I reach for the temperature dial, find it with my fingers, and twist.