I had never thought much about birds before I met Muddy. Any interest that I had in them, and the various species that inhabited Britain, was because of him. There were a lot of things I hadn’t considered before I met him.
I’d often thought of life as something to be bargained with, to be battled with. It was an entity to which you repeatedly justified your existence, to which you made your case for why it deserved to be embellished with happiness and love and friendship. There was something almost mythical about people for whom it hadn’t been this way, people who were simply entitled to happiness by virtue of being alive.
Muddy often made me feel as if I deserved to be one of these people. His enthusiasm for his own life made mine feel better by association. It was an enthusiasm that seeped into quotidian things like swimming, various kinds of rock music, karaoke, and, yeah, birds.
The first time I saw him was on a warm afternoon in July. I’d just returned home to Dartford from university, and I had no intention of going back. I stood in the woods by my flat, staring at a small x-acto knife cradled in my palm. I thought I’d submerged myself somewhere that felt thickly wooded enough that nobody would see me. It was so quiet. From the trees to the dirt to the wildflowers, it felt as if the woods were closing in on themselves. The quiet hadn’t brought with it any peace; in fact, it had amplified my ominous thoughts. I pressed my eyes shut and begged life for something it had refused me, desperately hoping that once I opened them up again, among the leaves and branches, there it would be, some glorious manifestation of happiness. But when I opened my eyes, the world seemed darker somehow, crueler, as if it had collected in its palms my every failure, my every inadequacy, and presented them to me, instructing me to behold the beauty around me and deem my presence here inappropriate.
I closed my eyes again.
A hand suddenly landed on my shoulder and I squeezed the knife tight, gasping in pain, dropping it into the ferns. I turned around and there he was: a tall husky guy holding a pair of binoculars, with brown hair down to his neck and a concerned expression on his stubbled, dimpled face.
“Oh, pal,” he said. He was wearing cargo shorts, brown safety boots, and a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “What’ve you done to yourself?” He had a distinctive Mancunian accent. I looked up at him, panicked, trying to catch the blood dripping with my other palm. I was so embarrassed and desperately wanted to be alone, so much that I wanted to cry. But it had been my father’s teaching that I shouldn’t cry in front of other people, some “wisdom” from childhood that’d been implanted like a chip in my brain. “Ah, you’re bleeding, mate . . .” he continued. He fished out a handkerchief from one of the pockets on his shorts, waved out the crumbs, and began to wrap it around my hand. “Had my sandwiches in this but it should be all right.”
“I’m fine,” I said curtly, yanking my hand away and unraveling it from the blood-soaked fabric.
“Ah, come on, mate,” he said. “Don’t be like that. You’re bleeding. Here, look—”
“I said I’m okay.”
“Oh, pal, you can’t just—”
I walked away from him before he could finish, holding my shirt over the cut, all the way back to the flat. Crossing the road, I realized I hadn’t brought my keys with me. I also realized that he had been following me. When I got to the front door, I sat on the bench just outside the building and kept my head down as he walked toward me.
“Is your name Harley by any chance?” he asked, looking down at me. I nodded, still not looking up. “Thought it might be. I’m Muddy. I suppose I’m your new flatmate, then.” He went to shake my hand but then stopped. “Shit, yeah, sorry.” He took his keys out of another pocket on his shorts. “Let’s get you inside, then.”
Muddy and I had a mutual friend, Chelsea, whose dad owned the flat. Before I came back from university, I’d asked her if I could have my old room back, but she’d already let it out to somebody else, so I had to take the smaller third one instead. It turned out that somebody was Muddy.
I spent the afternoon avoiding him. I locked myself in the bathroom for a few minutes, running some cold water over my hand, and then looked through the first aid kit for something to bandage it with. I couldn’t bear the thought of throwing my bloody shirt in the kitchen bin where Chelsea might see it, or where Muddy might be reminded of this encounter, so I balled it up and stuffed it under my bed, later disposing of it in one of the bins outside. I stayed in my room with my headphones on, pretending to be asleep whenever Muddy knocked on my door and asked if I was all right.
Honestly, I didn’t really know what I was doing in the woods. I had always assured myself that I wasn’t suicidal because I didn’t meet the criteria. It was usually like I was on autopilot or something, but only until I reached that pivotal moment before I shuddered back into consciousness. But I’d got so close this time.
I slept well into the evening. When I woke up, I heard loud voices outside. I didn’t want to get out of bed: the thought of doing so terrified me. At university, hearing other people’s voices in the communal area meant I wouldn’t leave my room at all, not even for the bathroom, until it was pin-drop silent. But I couldn’t do that now since Chelsea had texted from the living room, asking me to come out. And not wanting to irritate her, I did.
On the sofa, Muddy was sat beside a brawny guy with muscular arms and a cap on backward. He was in a white polo shirt, navy workman trousers, and had a full-sleeve tattoo down his left arm. They were playing a wrestling game on the PlayStation; they didn’t look like each other exactly, but there was a certain brotherliness about them. Chelsea was sat on the single chair against the wall, fiddling with her phone, looking at them, annoyed. When she saw me, her face broke into a wide smile, which put one on mine. Her face was more bronzed than I remembered, and her ginger hair was shorter too, all glossy and swinging atop her shoulders.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you, dropout,” she said.
I kept my bandaged hand in my pocket as we hugged. “Come on,” I said. “I don’t want that to be a thing.”
“Too late,” she said, licking her thumb and dabbing away the sleep in the corners of my eyes. I batted her hand away, laughing. I took a step back to enjoy her outfit: a long-sleeved black top with a cutout across the chest, fitted into a short leather skirt.
“Chelsea Taylor,” I said enthusiastically. “I love everything about this. And you’ve finally done the hair. You’ve been talking about it for ages.”
“Oh, hon,” she said, “I’ve done the hair. I’ve done the brows. I’ve done the nails . . .” I looked down at them. “I didn’t think I’d like a neon-green look on me. And I never used to like ’em this long either, to be fair. But I’ve been getting my jollies clackety-clacking away on everything.”
She drummed her nails gently on my forehead. “They’re cute,” I said. “What made you finally change things up?”
For months, she’d been texting me about getting the chop, as well as rejuvenating her wardrobe, which up until recently had mostly been jeans and oversized belts with huge silver studs and colorful one-shoulder tops.
“Oh, it was all Nor’s idea,” she said. “She’s coming over in a bit, so you might want to wear a hat or something.”
Noria, Chelsea’s other black friend, was obsessed with my hair. I rarely went to the barber’s, and she enjoyed how fast and long it grew. It was like a cosmetic playground for her. Whenever she’d come round to the flat or whenever I went over to hers, she liked to style it in various ways and put all these different products in it. Chelsea had been friends with her long before I was. They used to be colleagues at a shoe store in Bluewater, before Chelsea left to work at Regal Cinemas, where we first met and where she was now a supervisor.
I asked her where they were going and she said ATIK, a nightclub in town near Dartford station. Just then, the guy in the cap shouted: “Chels, be a babe and get us a couple more beers, would you?”
Chelsea didn’t answer and rolled her eyes. She took my arm and pulled me into the kitchen, removing my hand from my pocket. Startled, she brought it close to her face and inspected the gauze.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Oh,” I said, trying to be nonchalant. “I was just out and about earlier, and I had a little accident. It isn’t—”
“What kind of accident?”
I laughed. “Chelsea,” I said. “It’s nothing.”