Heat Death

Malik drains his pint and stands up.

“Right, off home now. Same time next week?”

Zach nods.

“Okay, see you then.” Malik glances at his watch. “What are we like, finishing at 8? More like pensioners than thirty-somethings. Do you remember…”

Zach nods again. He does remember, so Malik doesn’t have to finish the sentence. Instead, Malik buttons up his coat: “Better go and see how the missus is getting on,” and leaves The Man in Space.

Zach stays in the armchair. He should go too. He’s already got his coat on, ready – though, to be honest, he wears his coat most of the time these days. It’s only mid-October, but whether October, July or January, he always feels the cold: puts the heating on full, wears three layers when teaching, sleeps in his socks. He shivers at the thought of leaving the pub, going outside.

Still, he should go. His wife’s expecting him home – has probably put some cold pizza aside from tea – and he has to take his daughter to one of her LAMDA speaking exams early tomorrow. Sunday morning: what a stupid time for a test – as if parents need a weekend, for God’s sake. Is it in Stafford or Crewe? He can’t remember. Then, when they get back, he has marking to do. Then preparation. Then Monday morning. Then five days of lessons, with the Sword of Damocles, aka Ofsted, dangling over him. Then Friday night exhaustion. Then Saturday again. Then, then, then.

“God,” he sighs, sinking back into the armchair. The chair’s so old, so saggy, he feels he might carry on sinking if he’s not careful – forever and ever, lost down the back with the coins and fluff.

Resisting the temptation to get lost, he pulls himself up again, and takes his half-drunk pint from the low table in front. He sips it, staring into space.

“G-o-o-o-o-d,” he sighs, slowly, slowly, elongating the vowel, so the word sounds like a cross between “God” and “Good”.

After a few minutes of sipping, staring and sighing, his eyes refocus, and he sees a half-familiar back sitting at the bar.

Isn’t that…

He’s not sure if it is who he thinks it is – he hasn’t seen her here for a few weeks. Or is it months? And her hair looks different – not quite as big, more shaped, dyed a different shade of brown. So he stays where he is, watching her, waiting for her to turn round a bit. Then he’ll be able to see her profile.

Perhaps she senses someone staring at her, because she swivels round on the barstool to look at him.

She smiles, he nods, and – to his surprise – she tilts her head to one side, indicating the empty stool next to her.

He gets up with some effort – the armchair is so low – and steps over to the bar. She pats the top of the stool, and he perches on it, next to her.

“Hello, Hope. Long time no see.” He tries to smile. “What’s new?” There’s a strange pause. She doesn’t say anything, so he fills the silence: “I mean, I haven’t seen you in ages. I just wondered…”

She frowns slightly, nods, in a way he doesn’t understand. He wonders if he’s already upset her in some way – can’t for the life of him think why, and she’s never struck him as a particularly sensitive or temperamental person. He squirms on the stool; it feels uncomfortable in comparison with the armchair, and he wishes he were back there, on his own, lost in sighs and space.

It’s not as if he knows Hope very well. She works (or worked, he’s not sure which) in this pub, and has served him drinks for three years of Saturdays – at least till recently. They’d chat about this and that, his daughter, her teenage son, pets, rain, while she pulled his pints, while he waited for Malik. Before he started coming here with Malik, there were fourteen or so years when he hardly saw her, except by chance, in passing. First, there were the four years when he was away at university – she didn’t go, wasn’t interested, stayed in Stoke; then, back in Stoke, as a newly qualified Physics teacher in their old sixth form, he was too busy for pubs; then, later, he was a full-time teacher and (unexpectedly) a new father, too busy for anything. Before all of it, fatherhood, teaching, university, he’d been at high school and college with her, along with Malik and many others – others he now half-keeps in touch with via Facebook, seeing them at Christmas during visits to ageing parents. Only Hope and Malik, from their whole wonderful, funny, crazy year group, are still here, still in Stoke.

A dream-like memory surges up out of it all: a memory of one particular sunny afternoon, on the way home from school, Malik and the other lads laughing – they were always laughing – of Malik pushing him towards Hope – of them both standing red face to red face – of them both giggling, knowing what was coming, knowing the script, as if rehearsing something on stage – of him asking her out to the cinema, or bowling, or something – of her kissing him on the lips – of her winking at his mates behind them, whispering in his ear: “You’re fun, Zach, but not till you’ve grown up a bit” – and patting him on the cheeks, sashaying away, blowing a second kiss over her shoulder – and everything in that moment, the kisses, the whisper, the red faces, seeming so intense, so vivid, even now, over twenty years later.

God, he realises with a shock: that happened over twenty years ago. Four years into high school. He’s known Hope for more than two-thirds of his life. Bloody hell. Clearly length of acquaintance is not directly proportional – does in no way correlate – with depth of knowledge.

He looks at her: she’s still got the bouffant hair she had at fifteen, even though it seems tamer, less animate than usual; she’s still got the large front teeth, big hips. She’s still taller than him, still wider than him. Having said that, most people are wider than him: he’s never been able to put on weight, never been much more than bone-thin, as his wife puts it, when she tries to cuddle up to him at night. The only thing that’s changed much, he thinks, is Hope’s voice: it’s softer, slower than it used to be. It sounds lullaby-sad when she finally speaks.

“It has been a long time,” she says. “Yes.”

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks, surprised by his own question. He wonders if he’s trying to make up for having upset her – though he cannot for the life of him understand why something so innocuous as “Long time no see” could upset anybody.

“Yes, that’d be nice,” she says, nodding, brightening. “It’d make a nice change from me pulling pints for you. Bacardi and Coke, please.”

He orders, pays, and while he’s waiting for change, says to her: “Are you still working here, then?” He stops himself from adding: “I haven’t seen you behind the bar in ages.”

“I’m coming back to work, yes. Start again tomorrow. It feels good getting back to it after being away so long.” She mentions the time lapse now without flinching – just looks down at her glass. He wants to ask her where she’s been, what she’s been doing, but doesn’t feel he knows her well enough.

Instead, he says: “Glad to hear it,” and sips his pint.

There’s a pause. “How’s your Annie?” she asks. “It is Annie, isn’t it, your daughter? And Sara too – how are they both?”

“Both fine,” he says. “Trundling along. We’re all trundling along. And your son? Sorry –” he rummages around his memory for a moment – “I mean, Ed. How’s he doing these days?”

“He’s doing very well,” she says. “Fourteen now. At Trentham High. Our old stomping ground, you know.”

“Oh,” he says. “Good.” He sips his pint, doesn’t know what else to say.

“Perhaps,” she says, to his relief breaking the silence, “your Annie and him will overlap in a few years. Perhaps they’ll both be there at Trentham High same time, like us. But then again not like us, because they’ll be in different years.” She counts on her fingers, then gives up. “I can’t do the maths. You can, though. You’re good with numbers. Will they overlap at Trentham High?”

“No,” he says, straight away. “They won’t.”

“Oh, that’s a shame,” she says. Then she smiles at him – almost beams – though he doesn’t look up, doesn’t smile in return. “It was such fun, wasn’t it, them days?”

“It was,” he says, peering at his beer. He wonders why it’s so flat, where all the bubbles have gone. Perhaps it’s off. “It certainly was.”

There’s a long pause. Her smile dies down, gives up the ghost. She turns to look up at the TV over the corner of the bar.

“Look,” she says suddenly – almost squeals – “look. It’s the Lottery results.”

He looks up too. “Do you do it?”

“Every week,” she says. “You never know.”

“I suppose not,” he says. He shivers. “Perhaps it’s time I went. Early start tomorrow. Taking Annie to…”

“Oh, not yet, Zach. You haven’t finished your drink. Just wait with me while the numbers are called. It’s nice to have someone to talk to for a change.” She breaks into a smile again. “And to moan at when you don’t win anything for the millionth week in a row.”

“Okay,” he says. They watch the show in silence for a minute or two. He looks at her from the side. She’s sitting up straight, eyes wide, transfixed.

“You don’t really think you’re going to win, do you?” asks Zach.

“Of course not,” she says, without looking round. “But it’s fun to dream a bit.”

“What would you do with the money?” he asks, for something to say.

“I don’t know. Maybe a cruise. Go somewhere hot. Somewhere that’s not here or Blackpool or Majorca. Somewhere different. Take my Ed with me. Give up my flat. Buy a caravan. Go driving across Europe. America. Anywhere!” She takes a deep breath, as if overcome, and asks him in return: “What would you do?”

“I never enter,” he says.

She goes back to staring at the TV, eyes reflecting colours. There’s applause, a drumroll, a deep bass note on a synthesiser, a close-up of numbered balls jumping up and down, revolving, jostling, in a see-through cylinder. A kind of oversized Brownian motion, Zach thinks. Perhaps he’ll use the image to demonstrate Brownian motion, kinetic theory, even statistical mechanics, to some of his A-Level students.

The first number is being drawn.

“Where’s your ticket, then?” he asks.

Distracted, concentrating on the TV, she murmurs: “Oh I think it’s in my bag. Or perhaps my coat. Or at home, not sure.”

“How can you know you’ve won if you don’t have your ticket?”

“Oh, I don’t need my ticket. I know the numbers off by heart: my age, Ed’s age, Ed’s guinea pig’s age, the number of our flat, number of ex-husbands,” she blushes slightly, then adds: “and the number of people I’ve slept with.”

“But it’s stupid,” he blurts out, before he can stop himself, strangely irritated by her list. “It’s stupid, using the same numbers every time. It just means the one week you don’t enter, they’ll probably come up.”

“Is that a physics law?” she asks.

“Of course not. It’s Sod’s Law.”

“You make everything sound like physics,” she says.

“No, I don’t,” he says – though he knows she’s got a point. “All I’m saying is if you choose the same numbers every week, you’ll end up being one of those urban myths. You know, all those stupid stories people tell about the Lottery – about how the one week they didn’t enter, or lost their ticket, or the newsagent was closed, that was the one week they’d have won. But didn’t.”

Meanwhile, the first number has been declared: 35. As the ball rolls into place, the voiceover drones a short history of the number – how many times it has been called over the years, when it was last picked, which famous guest on the show was thirty-five their last birthday.

Hope doesn’t say anything – just leans forward on her stool a bit more.

The next number is called. It’s 14. Hope looks oddly disappointed, and her shoulders sag: “This is what it’s always like. It starts well and then…”

The next number is called. It’s 4.

“How old’s Ed’s guinea pig?” asks Zach.

“Four,” she says. They both look at the TV.

The fourth number is called. It’s 12.

“That’s my flat number,” says Hope, not moving.

The next number is 2. “Two ex-husbands,” says Hope.

Zach wonders what the hell is happening.

The final number is called. It’s 53. He looks at her, and she looks at him. She grins, and bats him playfully on the wrist. “No. How dare you. What kind of girl do you think I am?”

“I’ve no idea,” he says, and – for the first time – smiles back.

They’ve almost forgotten about the bonus ball, and turn back just in time: 41.

He sips his drink. Then stops. She’s still. Very still.

“That’s it,” she murmurs. “That’s how many people – if you count a couple of women – I’ve slept with.”

His first thought is: God, how come she’s shocked at the idea of sleeping with fifty-three people, as opposed to forty-one? His second thought is: God, that’s thirty-seven more than me. His third thought is spoken out loud: “Bloody hell, Hope. You’ve won.”

The landlord, who’s polishing glasses a couple of yards away, looks up. “Really?” he asks. “Are you joshing us, Hope?”

“No, I’m not,” she says. “I’ve won.” She says it so breathily, so quietly, so intensely that no-one who overhears – not Zach, not the landlord, not the other barmaid, not the two men waiting for drinks at the opposite end of the bar – doubts it again.

“Oh my God, Hope,” shrieks the barmaid. She stamps her foot. “Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod.”

The landlord is crying: “This is incredible,” he wheezes over and over. After a puff on his inhaler, he manages to say: “I’m so pleased for you, Hope. After everything you’ve been through.” He reaches over the bar and kisses her on both cheeks.

The barmaid, meanwhile, scuttles from behind the bar, and grabs Hope from behind – pulls her off the stool and hugs her, jumping up and down at the same time: “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod.” The two men at the opposite end of the bar don’t know what to do, and are staring open-mouthed.

Zach is looking from TV screen, where they’re repeating the winning numbers for the third time, back to Hope’s face, back to TV screen: 2, 4, 12, 14, 35, 53, and Bonus Ball 41. He mutters the numbers under his breath, as if they’re some kind of curse, spell, physics equation: 2, 4, 12, 14, 35, 53, 41.

Finally, he slips off the stool, and – for the first time in twenty years – kisses Hope, this time on the cheek. She touches her cheek afterwards, murmuring something about his lips feeling cold. Then he embraces her, gently. “Congratulations, Hope. Congratulations. Who’d have thought it.”

The two men have come over too, and form a queue to hug her in turn. “Congratulations,” one of them slurs. “And if you need any help spending it, darling…”

She laughs and pushes him away.

“Get everyone drinks, Frank,” she says to the landlord. “A round of shots. And other drinks too – whatever anyone wants. All on me.”

While everyone is ordering, she retrieves her handbag from the floor, unclasps it, and starts rummaging inside. The drinks arrive, one by one, and still she’s rummaging.

The landlord, who’s got tears standing in his eyes, puts his hand over hers: “Hope, don’t worry. If you haven’t got the cash on you, I’ll stand these. They’re on the house.” He grins. “You’ll be able to pay us back with interest in a few days. We’ll miss you here, you know.”

Everyone takes the shots, clinking them together, saying: “Cheers,” toasting Hope, and downing them. Everyone, that is, except Hope. She closes her handbag and looks up.

“What’s the matter?” asks Zach, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

“The ticket isn’t in my bag,” she says quietly. She takes the final shot and downs it. “Cheers,” she says to everyone, holding up the empty glass. The others crowd round and jostle to clink their glasses repeatedly against hers – as if, by doing so, some of her good luck might rub off.

“Are you sure?” asks Zach, who’s been pushed aside, and is on tiptoes, trying to talk over others’ heads.

“Yes,” she says. “I checked twice. It’s not here.”

The glass clinking dies down, and everyone’s talking at once: what she should do with the money, where she might visit, what she might eat and drink, where she might invest it, whether property prices in Stoke or down south represent better prospects, and so on. Only Zach is talking to her directly; only Zach hears what she has said.

“Where is it then?”

“It’s probably at home. In the flat.”

“Probably?” he asks, frowning. “Probably?” He feels like shaking her, his tone shot through with impatience: “For God’s sake,” he wants to say to her, “for God’s sake: probably?” She doesn’t notice, and her tone remains quiet, dreamy.

“Yes, probably…No, definitely. I can see it: I must’ve left it on the worktop. It’ll be there when I get home. I can’t wait to tell Ed.” She opens her handbag again, takes out her mobile, hesitates, and then puts it back in. “No, I won’t call or text him yet. I’ll wait till I’ve got home. I’ll wait till I’ve got the ticket in my hand. I know: I’ll send him a photo of it. Just a photo, with no explanation.” She laughs. “He’ll wonder what it means, why I’ve messaged him a photo of a lottery ticket.” She imagines her son’s face gradually changing, the truth dawning: “And then he’ll get it. He’ll check the numbers or something on his phone. He’ll call me. And you know what? Everything’ll be okay again.” She turns to Zach, takes his hand. “I can’t believe it, Zach,” she breathes. “Everything’s going to be okay, isn’t it?”

He nods. “But you need to find the ticket,” he says.

“You’re right,” she says, slipping off the stool, suddenly decisive, galvanised by the image of her son’s face. She points at Zach’s pint: “Down that, and we’ll go and get it.”

“We?” he asks – but she doesn’t hear, because she’s distracted by the landlord, who puts his hand on her shoulder, over the bar.

“Going already?” the landlord asks, disappointed. No-one except Zach has picked up that she can’t find the ticket.

Hope looks at him, squeezes the hand on her shoulder. “Just for now,” she says.

“We could have a lock-in if you like. Special occasion.”

“Thanks, Frank. But I want to go home. Tell Ed.” She leans over the bar and kisses him on the cheek. Then hesitates, looks him in the eyes, and kisses him full on the lips. The barmaid whistles, laughs and claps her hands. Zach looks away, tries not to remember – again – what her kiss was like when they were fifteen.

“That’s to say thank you, Frank,” whispers Hope, holding his cheek. “Thank you for everything.”

She pulls away, and starts putting on her coat. Zach helps her.

“Don’t forget us,” the landlord says. Zach’s worried he’s going to start blubbing, and wants to leave before he does.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” Hope says, blowing him another kiss, hugging the barmaid tightly, and turning to go. The two men line up, for another drunken hug. She lets them peck her on the cheek. Then she makes for the door.

Zach swallows down the rest of his pint, nods at the landlord and barmaid, and follows Hope, just in time to open the door for her. They leave in a flurry of goodbyes: “Goodbye,” “Good luck,” “Come back soon,” “Congratulations,” “It’s wonderful news,” “Couldn’t happen to a lovelier person,” “Love you,” “We’ll miss you.”

Outside, Zach does up his coat, puts his hands in his pockets. “It’s bloody freezing.”

“It’s not,” says Hope. She takes his arm. He wonders if she can feel the body heat escaping through his coat sleeve. He thinks of heat loss, of the laws of thermodynamics, of next week’s lessons. She squeezes his arm more tightly, rubs it up and down, as if to warm it up.

“It’s not,” she says again, “it’s a lovely night. So dark – look, the moon’s only a lemon slice in a gin.” Almost skipping, she pulls him through the streets, down a couple of alleyways, through a subway under the A50, across a patch of wasteland to a squat block of flats, and finally up to her flat: Number 12.

*

Still in his coat, Zach is sitting on Hope’s sofa. It’s cold, and he’d like to ask her to put the heating up, but thinks it might be a bit rude. He glances round, wondering why he’s here.

The flat is small. To his left is a tiny kitchen area, separated from the living room – where he’s currently sitting – by an island worktop, covered in pans, plates, and bills. Behind him are two closed doors, one to the bathroom – which he’s just visited for a piss – one presumably to Ed’s bedroom. In front of him is an old TV and, next to it, another door, ajar. Through the doorway, he can see the bottom half of a double bed, a pink duvet, a blanket over the window in place of curtains. He looks away, and sees something in the right-hand corner of the living room which, oddly enough, he hasn’t noticed before: an upright piano.

“Do you want a drink?” Hope asks, as she comes out of the bathroom.

“Shouldn’t you be looking for a ticket?” he asks back, shuffling on the sofa.

“Yes, but let’s get a drink first.” She steps over to the kitchen area, opens a cupboard over the sink, and peers inside: “I’ve got gin. Is that okay?”

“Yes. Just a small one.” He thinks about how late it is; how he really should be at home; how he has to take his daughter to the examination early tomorrow morning; how his wife will be wondering where he is; how he could text her, but won’t. He glances at the half-open bedroom door again.

“I’ve got some lemonade somewhere, I think. It might be a bit flat…” She opens and shuts various cupboards, until the door comes off one and crashes to the floor. “Oh shit,” she says. “It’s always doing that.” She giggles, and retrieves a cheap bottle of lemonade from inside the exposed cupboard. There’s nothing else in there. She finds two tumblers on the draining board, and brings everything – gin bottle, lemonade, glasses – over to the coffee table in front of Zach. She sits down next to him on the small sofa. One of her knees touches his. She pours the lemonade into tumblers, and tops it up with a good two or three inches of gin. They clink glasses, and drink. She almost drains her glass.

“Are you going to look for the ticket?” he asks.

“In a minute.” She’s slurring a bit.

He shuffles uncomfortably again. He’s finding it hard to keep still, with a winning lottery ticket somewhere in the flat. “Aren’t you worried? Don’t you want to get it sorted?”

“Of course. But I’m sure it’s just under some of the papers on there” – she indicates the worktop – “somewhere.”

He sips the gin. He looks down and sees her hand resting lightly on his thigh. He must be drunk, because he hadn’t felt her put it there. Her face is close. He can feel the warmth of her breath on his cheek.

“Perhaps we should both look for it,” he suggests, looking away. His lack of arousal worries him. Here she is, here he is, at her place, at night, together. Both sitting on the sofa, together. She’s attractive – he finds her attractive, always has. But everything feels cold, and the missing lottery ticket is bothering him: it’s somewhere here, just out of reach. “Let’s get up and look for it.”

She takes her hand away and pouts: “Oh, Zach, you’re no fun anymore. You used to be, I don’t know, Tigger, and now you’re all Eeyore. And all teacher-bossy too: look for this, look for that…”

“It’s not just this or that, Hope. It’s a winning lottery ticket, for God’s sake.”

“I know, but honestly, Zach. You used to be a laugh in school. What happened to you?”

“I don’t know,” he says. There’s a pause, and she looks at him sympathetically – as if she feels sorry for him. It irritates him, and he stands up. For a moment, he thinks about going. How easy it would be to walk out of the flat. Instead, he says: “You go through the stuff on the worktop, and I’ll look round the room.”

She sighs, finishes her drink and gets up. “Okay then. But promise me you’ll stay for another drink when we’ve got it.”

“I promise,” he says.

She steps over to the worktop, and starts shuffling through the bills, statements, unopened envelopes, Post-it notes: “I know it’s here,” she says. “I remember seeing it.”

Meanwhile, Zach wanders round the living area, shoving his hand down the back of the sofa, flicking through discarded magazines on the floor, in case the ticket has been used as a bookmark. He works his way round to the piano. He crouches, and flicks through some of the music under the stool: Chopin’s Études and Nocturnes, Schubert’s Sonatas, Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. He stands and turns to her: “I didn’t know you could play.”

She looks up at him, across the room: “No,” she says, “you didn’t.”

All too easily distracted, especially by something she loves, she stomps over to the piano, plonks herself on the stool, lifts the lid, and – without any self-consciousness, any inhibitions – hammers out the main theme of Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto. She breaks off mid-flow when one of the next-door neighbours bangs on the wall.

She swivels on the stood to face Zach. He thinks she’s crying. “Do you know what that was?”

“No,” he says.

“It’s the music for an old black and white movie called Dangerous Moonlight. I watched it one day when I was off work. It made me cry. The pianist in it’s got amnesia from an accident in the war. He’s been away from his wife for ages, and can’t remember anything, not even her. But the music kind of helps him remember, and they’re reunited and everything’s okay at the end – well, except for the bombing, the invasion and stuff. It’s all so lovely,” she gushes.

“You must be good, to play stuff like that,” he responds, flatly. He doesn’t tell her what he thinks of the music, which seems overblown, naff in this context – in a tiny flat in Stoke-on-Trent, seven decades after the war, with a neighbour banging on the wall. He doesn’t tell her that, at this moment, she herself seems overblown, naff, kitsch. Her intensity irritates him – perhaps because it reminds him of something he’s lost, half-forgotten, in a kind of emotional amnesia.

“Anyway, shouldn’t we be finding this damn ticket?” he asks.

She shrugs her shoulders. “I’d rather be playing Dangerous Moonlight for you.”

“Our Annie’s starting to learn,” he says, trying to steer the conversation away from Dangerous Moonlight.

“I could teach her,” Hope says, then adds: “But she’s probably already got a teacher.” She gets off the stool, and returns to the worktop. He moves in the opposite direction, and starts flicking through music on top of the piano.

“Do you teach as well?”

“A bit,” she says, turning over an unpaid BT bill. “It’s helped these last few months. When I couldn’t manage the job at The Man in Space, at least I could do a bit of teaching here. It helped pay a few of these bills.”

He turns around, stares at her. He’s drunker now, braver, so is going to ask her outright: “What’s been going on these last few months, Hope? Where’ve you been?” Before he can do so, though, she squeals, and stamps her feet on the floor.

“Got it!” she shrieks, waving a slip of paper. “I knew it was here.”

He sighs with relief. “For a few minutes there, I thought…”

“I know,” she says, “you were worried. But I knew it was here.” She waves it again. “Time for another drink.”

She brings the ticket over to him, and kisses him on the cheek. “You see – I knew it was okay.”

He takes the ticket, and glances down at it – trying not to be jealous, trying not to think of all the things he could do, if this small, half-screwed-up piece of paper were his.

Yes: the numbers were all there: 2, 4, 12, 14, 35, 41.

“You’ve done it, Hope,” he whispers. “Congratulations.”

He’s about to pass the ticket back to her, when the date at the bottom comes into focus: SAT 19 SEPT 2015.

She reaches out for the ticket, and takes hold of the top of it between thumb and forefinger. He doesn’t let it go, and it’s taut between them.

“What?” she asks. She raises an eyebrow: “Don’t you want to give it to me, Zach?”

“It’s not the right one,” he says. “It’s a September ticket.” He lets it go, and she takes it, turns it round, peers at it. She’s clearly having difficulty focussing.

“Oh,” she says. She drops the ticket, and it falls, drifting from side to side like a feather, till it lands at their feet.

He looks down at it, then back up at her: “Oh?” he says, “Oh? Is that all you’ve got to say? Oh?” He’s holding her arms, trying not to shake her: “For God’s sake, Hope.”

“Stop it.” She pulls away, turns her back on him. He thinks she’s going to start searching for the ticket again. He’s wrong. “I tell you what,” she says over her shoulder. “Let’s get another drink, have a sit down, then we can start hunting again.” She plumps herself down on the sofa, and pats the space next to her. He stares at her, open-mouthed, a statue.

She waits for him a few seconds; but when he doesn’t move, doesn’t respond, she says: “Suit yourself, then,” and reaches for her glass.

As she’s pouring herself some lemonade, spilling a bit onto the table, he comes back to life: “For God’s sake, Hope. Somewhere in this flat is two million quid, or whatever. We need to find it. You need to find it.” She carries on making her drink – pouring the gin. He breathes out, almost hissing: “Okay then. I’ll find it for you.”

He stomps over to the worktop, and starts going through the papers: ordering them, putting them into piles. Now and then he comes across a smaller piece of paper: a receipt, or an old lottery ticket. These he glances at, and discards. “No, not here,” he mutters.

He turns and starts opening and banging shut cupboards. “For God’s sake, Hope,” he keeps muttering, growling, “God’s sake. Where the hell did you put it?”

“I can’t quite remember,” she says from the sofa, where she’s enjoying her drink. “Why don’t you come and j…”

“No. I’m going to find it if it kills me.”

He opens one cupboard above the cooker, and dozens of receipts, bank statements and bills rain down on him. He stoops to pick some of them off the floor. “For God’s sake, Hope, how can you find anything in this mess?”

“Why’s it so important to you?” she slurs from the sofa. “It’s my ticket.” She pauses. “It’s mine, you know, to lose if I like.”

“Oh, shut up.” He’s sweating now, desperate, sorting through papers, peering in the cupboard, scraping a stool over from the worktop so he can perch on top, get a better look – then giving up on this cupboard, opening and shutting others, returning to the worktop, riffling through the piles he’s just made – then, his frustration spiralling exponentially, scattering the piles of papers on the floor – then back in the living area, hurling magazines around, shoving his hands down the back and sides of the sofa, leaning over Hope (“Ooh, Zach, that feels nice, you can keep rummaging there if you like…”) – then attacking the piano stool, throwing Chopin, Schubert and Bach around (“Not my music, Zach, please“) – then almost running to the son’s bedroom, storming into it, ready to tear it to pieces – where is it? where is the damn ticket, for God’s sake, where is it? – until he’s confronted by such tidiness, such near-emptiness, he comes to a standstill. The bed is well-made. There’s nothing on the floor. There’s nothing on the desk, on the chest of drawers. He opens the tiny wardrobe, and finds only rattling hangers, one set of neatly folded pyjamas at the bottom. There’s nowhere to search in this room, because everything is in its place or gone – and that takes the wind out of his sails. He stops, frowns.

Panting, he steps back into the living room. He reaches up to the wetness on his face, thinking it’s sweat – and realises he’s been crying. He doesn’t know why. He flashes back to the question she’d asked a few minutes ago: “Why’s it so important to you?” He doesn’t know, has no idea why finding someone else’s lottery ticket is so important to him.

Instead of trying to answer the question, he asks another: “Why is Ed’s room so…tidy?” Zach catches his breath, thinking for a second she’s going to say that he’s died. Perhaps that’s why she’s been away from work. “Where is he?”

“He’s at his dad’s.”

Exhausted, trembling, Zach steps back to the sofa, and sinks down next to her. She puts her hand on his arm, offers him a drink she’s got ready for him.

“Here. I think you need this.”

“I thought Ed lived with you,” Zach says, trying not to cry.

“He did, till four months ago. He moved in with his dad and stepmum for a few weeks, you know, when things were so up in the air. He took his guinea pig with him.” She speaks slowly, carefully, picking her way through emotional rubble. “He decided to stay on for a bit afterwards – after things settled down. They’ve got a nicer house, more money.” She grins. “Or, if we find that ticket, they had more money.”

She tops up her drink with more gin. “I miss him, you know. And his guinea pig.”

Zach asks her directly now: “What things have been up in the air, Hope? What’s been going on? Why haven’t you been at The Man in Space?”

She smiles at him. “I’ve just had…a touch of cancer.” She reaches behind herself, unclips her bra, and starts pulling up her top.

“I’m not…”

“Shhh,” she says, putting a finger on his lips, slipping her bra down.

For a moment, he wonders what he’s looking at. The left breast next to him is full, bell-like, what he expected. The right breast is a scarred space.

She sits there, unembarrassed, an eyebrow raised. “They’re going to operate again in a few weeks. Reconstruction, they call it. They couldn’t do it at the same time as they cut it off, because of the radiotherapy.” She tugs at her hair: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to take this off too.” He frowns, confused. “You didn’t think it was mine, did you? Didn’t you even notice it looked different? God, men.”

He nods and shakes his head at the same time, staring down once more at her chest. She smiles at him, almost pityingly, licks her lips: “You can touch it if you like.” He doesn’t move. “Only if you want to, of course.”

He still doesn’t move. “I had no idea,” he says.

“I thought you already knew,” she says, “at least till you asked me in the pub what I’d been up to. You confused me, Zach – I wasn’t sure if you didn’t know, or if you did know and had forgotten, or if you were taking the piss somehow. And after, well, I just couldn’t be bothered telling you. There’s always so many people to tell. It gets boring. Tiring. Tonight’s the first time I’ve had some fun without anyone asking me about it.”

He’s still staring at the space where a breast used to be. “There seems to be a lot I don’t know about you – about everyone,” he says, and shivers. She thinks he’s shivering at her, with a kind of horror, repulsion. She pulls down her top, starts doing up her bra.

But he’s not shivering because of her. He’s shivering because he feels cold. He’s shivering because he feels like all the heat in his body, in the flat, in the universe is draining away – no, dispersing. He’s shivering because of heat dispersal. He’s shivering because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he was teaching, last week, to a group of gifted and talented students: “The Second Law states that the entropy of an isolated system increases over time – that heat will always transfer from a hotter body to a colder one – that this process is not spontaneously reversible – that therefore the universe must be expanding, dispersing and cooling from a point of infinite heat, infinite density – that eventually, after roughly 10100 years, the logical end-point of the Second Law is that the universe will attain thermodynamic equilibrium, a state of maximum entropy, heat death, where temperatures are levelled out, energy dissipated, particles dispersed, equidistant from one another, cold…” He’s shivering because of that cold – because he feels an entropic process operates not only on a universal scale, but on a microcosmic one too, in individual human lives: that people he knew have dispersed like particles, that his own life has moved from a point of almost infinite heat to…

He stands up. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”

She’s visibly trembling, her cheeks red.

“It’s not that I don’t want to.” He knows he’s hurt her, but doesn’t know what to say. “It’s just that I’m cold.”

“You are,” she murmurs. “You really are.”

“I’ve got to go home. My wife. My daughter. You know how it is. I just can’t.”

She doesn’t allow herself to cry. Instead, she breathes in deeply, takes his hand, stands up, and they step over together to the front door.

At the door, they face each other. She kisses him on the lips – for the first time since they were fifteen. “We could’ve been great,” she says. “If I’d said yes that afternoon at school. It could’ve been all romantic like Dangerous Moonlight: you and me, the piano, black and white.” She chokes something back. “Things would’ve been different.”

He remembers the irreversibility of the Second Law, of heat dispersal: “No, they wouldn’t.”

He turns to leave, then turns back one last time: “Do you think you’ll find the ticket?”

“I don’t know,” she says. She smiles at him. It’s almost as if she doesn’t care, he thinks. And that thought is probably the closest thing to love he will ever know.

Jonathan Taylor is an author, lecturer, editor and critic. His books include the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is http://jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

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