I want to say I've learnt to cry silently, so I don't wake the person beside me ...

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T he phone rings. But I'm in a deep, dark pothole, paralysed, patiently listening; all the known universe is echo and blackness. Ring, ring. Suddenly I'm surfacing, rushing towards consciousness; I open my eyes and it's dark, the very dead of night, and the machine has clicked in. I hear my own voice, cheerful and projected. Through my befuddlement and fumbling for the lamp switch, I realise someone is letting their fingers do the waking - and I panic, of course.

Hit the light. Eyes scream at the indignity. The room appears, floodlit, a mess. Make for the mobile over piled books, tapes, clothes, CDs. Stumble. The message plays out.

"John?"

"Yes. John? Is that you?"

"Yes. It's me. I'm calling you."

It's like an Abbott and Costello routine. John is calling me, John; and he's drunk. Not much. But enough. Enough to ring at ... I can't locate the alarm clock.

"You said you'd call." He's slightly slurred, slightly absurd.

Sleep clings like stale perfume.

"I did?"

"Yes."

"Well, I will ... God, what time is it?"

"Let's see. Five." Giggle.

"Five? Oh shit ... Why are you calling?" I try not to sound angry and I find that, actually, I'm not. I'm freefloating.

"Because [the word takes great effort, its enunciation has peerless clarity] you've been avoiding me." There's a pause, the sort detective novels and Mothercare catalogues would describe as pregnant. It goes on and on - to term, you could say. I hold my tongue. After all, he's telling the truth. I have been avoiding him.

"Do you like me?" Well chosen word: like.

"Lots. I like you lots." I do. He's 13 years younger than me and funny and impulsive and scary. Scary because he wants to be about possibilities, potential, stuff like that.

"But you love Nicholas." That's true, too. I don't know if my life with him is coming together or falling apart, but, yeah, I love Nicholas now the way I did the day I met him. Only ... and if and but, maybe, perhaps and probably. "I said, you love Nicholas."

Yes. Yes. Yes. You want me to hurt you? Here, have some: "From the bottom of my pencil case."

"What was that?" He sounds mean.

"It's from a song. The Beautiful South. 'Song for No One.'"

"That's pathetic. Song lyrics. Queeny."

"No. 'People/people who need people/are the luckiest people in the world' - now, that would have been queeny." I wasn't aiming for a laugh but he roars anyway. Better.

"You could take a chance on me," he says.

"Abba."

"What?"

"Nothing. Before your time. You've been drinking."

Very carefully again: "Not much. Why do you love him?"

I need to pee. "I need to pee."

"What?"

"John, please don't keep saying, 'What?' I'm going to have a slash."

The bathroom mirror mocks. Tells me my eyes are bleary, my hair an eruption and that I'm naked, physically and in other ways. I look weirdly, oh, gee, young and unprotected. It's five in the morning and my defences aren't engaged. Pissing feels like the most intensely pleasurable thing I've ever done.

"Hello. I'm back."

"Hello. Have you seen Nicholas then?" His tone accuses.

"I saw him earlier today. Yesterday."

John explodes: "I can't believe you just said that."

I'm stunned: "I can't believe Alison Moyet recorded a song entitled 'Invisible', but what's your point?"

He doesn't laugh. "You'll see him when you know you shouldn't, but you've been avoiding me."

I flick through the multiple-choice menu for an appropriate reply. Bingo. Seventeen years is worth attempting to hang on to, even at some cost to your dignity, trust and heart. I'll try it: "It's been 17 years ..."

John sounds sober now: "And what have you learnt?"

I want to say I've learnt to cry silently, so I don't wake the person beside me, but I'm concerned that it won't sound flippant or tough or, at a pinch, bittersweet, but maudlin - though maudlin would at least be honest. "I'm not going to justify myself. I haven't made any promises, haven't done or said anything, we haven't even ..."

John makes this noise: stifled, thick, sore.

"Are you OK?"

"Don't sound so bloody patient." I wait, conveniently speechless.

"How's the gym?" John asks. Change of subject. Conversation winding down instead of going round and round. I prod my hard stomach, examine the new knots of muscle in my legs and arms: "I have a butt so tight you could flip dimes on it."

"I could be round in half an hour with some change." My turn to laugh. "What about inside?"

"Inside?" I ask.

"The X-rays, the shadow, your tummy."

I don't want to talk about me. I don't want to talk about him, or us. I don't want to think, or feel. I'm weary, he's whacked, it's time to shut shop. "I'm just ulcerated, cramped, bleeding, fissured ... as the doctor told me, 'Mr Lyttle, you're a mess inside'."

It's the perfect opening. John charges in: "I could have told him that." I look out my window. The sky is both black and blue.

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