English and History is a subversive romance, set in a Scottish town, two estranged friends, both English teachers, reconnect through adversity and their shared love of books.
'Chris, what can I do? Don't say fuck off because I won't, but what can I do?'
I want him to shut up, to go away, I clamp my hands over my ears.
‘Maybe it would help if you called Eilidh? Maybe she's just scared to call you?'
I curl tighter into a foetal shape beneath the quilt, shielding my face. How can he sit there telling me to call her?
'I know you don't want to talk to me, but I can't leave you alone just now. Are you listening?' Ally’s voice rises in a bossy crescendo.
I lift the cover and squint out at him. He’s not going to leave. ‘There's just…no point…nothing to say.' My eyes feel raw and puffy. Looking at him, fear and vulnerability makes me retreat again.
'This is an amazing book.' Ally picks up the James Robertson novel. 'I'm going to read it to you.'
Hour after hour in the dingy light of my room, Ally reads aloud from The Testament of Gideon Mack. A few chapters in, I move onto my side in the direction of Ally's voice. With the words he reads, my dull senses slowly respond, processing the language. Ally’s voice detached from his body soothes instead of antagonising, and I see a faint path out of the bleakness of my thoughts.
As it grows dark again, Ally stops reading. I sigh, disappointed.
‘I'm starving. I'm going to phone for a pizza,' he says, laying down the book.
I push myself up to a seated position, yawn and hug my knees. I’m impatient to hear him read more. This is the magic which I thought had deserted me: The magic of hearing your own pain, and your own hope in someone else’s words. It’s eroding the hard shell which feels like it has crystallised around me, cut me off. There is the way out, the light of beautiful words and thoughts, renewed by Ally's voice. Love and faith and loyalty and pain no longer concentrated like a sunbeam through a glass and incinerating me, but deflected, shared and connected with humanity.
'Ally,' I call to him but my voice has atrophied. Ally has picked up the house phone and left his mobile on the duvet cover. The screen lights up, someone calling him repeatedly from an unrecognised number. Five missed calls. 'Ally?' I call again. 'Your phone.'
Ally returns with the warm flat package, and a fresh waft of smoke. He drops it in the centre of my bed. I’m leafing through the pages of the book he’s read so far.
‘Your phone keeps ringing,’ I tell him. He looks at me, right at me.
‘I’m ignoring it. Come on, help me eat some of this. It cost a fortune.'
'No wonder. It's enormous.'
I unwillingly pick up a slice in his hands, eying it like a kind of challenge. It turns gluey in my throat and it’s an effort to swallow. My stomach is vacillating between hunger and nausea so I persist.
Ally eats most of the pizza himself, picks up The Testament of Gideon Mack and begins where he left off. After a few paragraphs, I interrupt him. 'I don’t think he’s mad,' I whisper.
'You mean Gideon?' Ally asks 'No, maybe not.'
‘He’s only mad if you take it all literally, and faith is basically about believing stuff literally, isn’t it? So, really, he’s the sane one because he doesn’t really believe what he’s told to. If you don’t question how things appear, if you take them at face value, then that’s a kind of madness.’
Ally seems to take this personally. ‘I suppose it could be naivety, credulity, but I don’t think it’s madness. If you question everything, then you’ve got no solid ground. There has to be something that you don’t doubt,’ Ally says, smoothing the page down.
‘So, you believe that he met the devil?’ I ask him.
‘No, of course I don’t, but he believes that he did.’
‘Does he? Does he believe anything? And don’t you think that makes him mad?’
‘I think it’s meant to make you question his sanity, but then is it any crazier to believe you met the devil than it is to believe in God? There’s no proof for either and like you say, he’s lost his Faith in God so he wants to believe in something.’
‘If you lose your Faith and you don’t know what to believe in anymore, the things you used to take for granted disintegrate, then you’re going to meet the devil like he did. I don’t think he’s insane.’ I don’t know why I feel so impassioned about him, about this character.
‘I think he’s lonely, and kind of…lost in his own head though.’
‘Yeah…’ My mind is off on a tangent, pawing over something Ally said. ‘Ally…you know when you said there has to be something that you don’t doubt? What do you mean? What can there really be that we don’t doubt?’
‘Love,’ Ally says without hesitation, ‘I mean, of course, you can doubt that someone loves you, but you can’t doubt love itself, that it exists and that it’s what makes life worth living.’
I turn inwards, away from the pain. Sinking back onto the pillow, I seal myself under the duvet, and clutch my stomach.
Ally begins to read again. His voice is softer and less expressive, but the words compensate, banishing the constant interference in my head.
In the early hours of the morning he begins to slur his words and smudge his sentences together with tiredness. I notice his eyes are heavy and aching to close. I take the novel out of his hand, fold down the corner of the page, and lay it on the bedside table.
'I'll go and sleep on the sofa,' Ally yawns, but makes no immediate move to go. I watch him give in to the weight in his eyelids, witness the instant of transition when the tiniest muscles around his eyes and mouth relent. I watch Ally giving in to sleep, as I’ve done before now, his lips parting slightly to reveal his distinctive neat and gappy teeth, his long eyelashes settling on the tight grey skin under his eyes. He makes it look so easy, when I battle to sleep at all.