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He held his breath. Held it because in the seconds between breathing in and breathing out, there was silence. He couldn’t hear the buzzing of electricity in the wires that snaked through the walls. He couldn’t hear the water moving through the pipes. He couldn’t hear the gas doing whatever it was gas did. Bubbling? Sliding? Floating? It didn’t matter because he couldn’t hear it.

He couldn’t hear his heart racing in his chest.

The absence of Claire was the absence of noise, too: of air passing through nostrils, past the pharynx, through bronchioles and back. The sniffing and snuffling sounds of sleep.

For that one moment, the world was still. The world was quiet.

Then his chest started to hurt and he exhaled, one long sigh punctuated by the sound of four paws landing on the duvet. A gentle thud: Crunchie’s little footsteps flattening feathers, her purr, then a squeaky meow that would be relentless now, increasing in volume until a spoonful of raw meat was splattered into her bowl and hoovered into her smelly mouth.

If Claire were there, still asleep beside him, he’d get to lie unbothered as Crunchie gently kneaded the ends of her blonde bob, getting closer and closer to her scalp, her claws eventually making contact with skin. But Claire was gone. He wondered if she’d got home late and left early, or hadn’t come home at all. Sometimes, lately, he’d woken to see her creeping in or creeping out, not wanting to wake him – but for his sake or hers? Some mornings he’d wake to her fingers tapping tapping tapping on her keyboard. But not today. Today Al was aware of the absence of things, the volume of the missing.

Today Al was aware of the absence of things, the volume of the missing.

He reached up and grabbed the ginger lump of Crunchie’s body, pulling her close to his bare chest. He kissed the top of her head as she wriggled in his arms, excited. His movement meant breakfast was near.

Al filled the kettle, turned it on, listened to the whine of the elements as they warmed, the bubble of the water as it boiled. Had it always been that loud? The aggravation hit him with the ferocity of the flying chairs in the YouTube bar fight he’d watched the previous evening. Danny had mentioned it at the pub and they all sat around a phone and watched as a Greek restaurant erupted with men punching and kicking each other, hurting each other the way men sometimes do.

Beside the fridge, her meat swallowed in two big gulps, Crunchie’s biscuits were being broken in half by her tiny molars. A few streets over, a train honked at the level crossing, two long honks followed by two shorter ones, and Al wished for silence. Steam gathered in the kettle and Al, his skin alive with impatience and irritation, flicked it off and abandoned the two scoops of coffee that sat in the bottom of the glass plunger.

In the shower, he turned the taps on; the pipes squealed and shuddered. He angled the shower head as high as it would go but he still didn’t fit under it properly. He had to duck when he wanted to wash his face, his hair, the back of his long neck. This house, like most of the houses he’d lived in throughout his life, was not built for men like him. Sometimes it felt as if the world was not built for men like him. He felt like a giant.

Al had learned early that his height was interesting to other people. He’d lost count of the number of times he was asked ‘How’s the weather up there?’ or the number of people who assumed he was good at basketball. Once, a table of men chanted ‘BFG’ at him. He used to laugh as if each time he heard these comments was the first. Lately, though, he’d stopped pretending. There had been a few occasions, always late at night, almost always in the city, where other men had seen him and assumed that, like them, he was itching for a fight. They’d bump into him, knock his drink out of his hand, ask him what his problem was. Al could practically see them twitching, their bodies full of feelings they didn’t know what to do with. Somewhere – or from someone – they’d learned that punching or getting punched would help.

Sometimes it felt as if the world was not built for men like him. He felt like a giant.

Maybe those guys were on to something, Al thought, recalling the video of the fight, the way the chair had cracked on a man’s shoulder. Maybe the splitting of lips, the taste of blood, knuckles bruised by the sharp bones of a nose, the long bones of a jaw, would fix the feelings he didn’t know what to do with. He felt a tingle on the skin of his arms, in the muscles of his hands as he soaped his armpits and chest with a squidge of Claire’s expensive body wash. He turned the taps off – too tight, just because it felt good – and wrapped himself in a towel.

He dried his back, his chest. As he moved through to the bedroom he left wet footprints on the polished floorboards of their expensive rental. He dried his arms, torso, his legs, his cock and balls, then sat on the edge of the bed. Everything felt like hard work today. Everything felt like it was tugging at his skin, like Crunchie’s claws needling and needling at him.

He picked through the stash of skincare on the dresser and found the moisturiser Claire had bought for him. He rubbed it into his hands first and then into the skin on his face – Claire had told him he had an oily T-zone, a dry something or other else – and as he rubbed it into the dark circles under his eyes, an image came to him in a flash: the crunch of his fist against a mouth, of soft lips slicing open, the warm trickle of blood. The rush of it, the colour, left Al just as quickly as it had come.

He looked at the time. Seven fifteen. Seven fifteen. Seven sixteen. It was Friday. It was November second. Summer had come early and it would be a warmer than usual day, but that didn’t explain the sweat beading across his lip, across his forehead. Al knew there was a reasonable explanation as to why his heart was beating so fast, why everything felt so loud and so hard. Tomorrow would be a year since it happened; tomorrow was one whole year of these feelings rising in him too easily, too often. Of them accumulating. Of them combining like a dangerous cocktail, like a high school science experiment about to fizz over, about to smash the thin glass of a beaker. But knowing where they came from didn’t make them go away, didn’t stop them from getting into his bones somehow. He thought of the frogs in slowly boiling water and felt envy. At least there was an end in sight for them. November second.


This is an extract from Marshmallow by Victoria Hannan (Hachette Australia), available now at your local independent bookseller.