Donna grabbed the pillow from the bed, fluffed it up and placed it against the headboard, then, spinning in place, plopped down and sat back against it, wiggling her bum to nestle in. Pulling the duvet over her flannel-clad legs, she grabbed her book from the nightstand and opened it to the page marked by the M&S receipt. She hadn’t read a paragraph before she stuffed the paper back in, clapped it closed, and dropped it in her lap. She relaxed back and gazed around her new bedroom, a girlish smile playing about her lips.
“Not gonna work,” she chided herself. “Too excited. Can’t concentrate on a bloody book, how’re you gonna sleep at all?” Her mum always scolded her for her habit of talking to herself, asking if she could gift the world with even a moment of silence when she’s alone, but Donna figured that she already talked everyone else to death, so why spare herself?
She jumped back out of bed and padded around the room, soaking in the vibrant ambience of her first night in Jon’s flat, or as he’d corrected her many times this evening, their flat. A month ago, he’d asked her if she’d like to move in, and though she’d agreed immediately and emphatically, “Yes!” and had spent the intervening days planning and packing, it hadn’t seemed real until she’d bidden Jon goodnight and stepped from his lounge into her bedroom. Until then, it had felt like every other evening they’d spent in his flat, which had ended with him driving her home. Tonight, she was already home.
“Home,” she repeated, to convince herself that this wonderful dream was reality. “I’m home. In our flat. In my bedroom.”
Since Jon insisted that they sleep apart, fearing that nightmares might trigger his powers and endanger her if they slept together, he’d converted his study for her and furnished it completely. She ran her hand over the gleaming wood of the matched bedroom set, then wandered to the wardrobe and opened it. She’d only unpacked enough clothes for the next week, leaving the rest in the boxes stacked under the stairs to Jon’s room, so it was still relatively empty.
“Oh, I don’t know why I’m looking in here.” As she turned away, the worn vanity, a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday that she couldn’t bear to leave behind, caught her eye. “Now, that’s more like it!” Letting the wardrobe door swing shut behind her, she trotted over to it and slipped into the chair.
Her kits and cases were piled on the vanity, unopened as she hadn’t had any need for them yet. Sorting among them, she pulled out a carved wooden jewelry box secured with a small heart-shaped lock. Finding the key was more difficult, as she wasn’t quite sure which other box she’d put it in. “Come on, come on,” she murmured as she rooted through one, then another, and then another. She found it in the fourth box, its little chain tangled among her costume earrings.
The wooden box contained the few pieces of precious jewelry she owned, and from it, she lifted the sapphire earrings that Jon had given her a couple of months before. Somehow, it felt only right that she display them prominently in this room. “What I need is a rack to hang them on, right about here,” she declared as she held the earrings up to the right of the mirror frame. “But for now…” She closed the wooden box and placed it right in front of the mirror, then laid the earrings on its lid.
In a moment, she was up and wandering around again. “Donna, girl, you’ve got to go to sleep,” she upbraided herself. “You’re exhausted, moving all day. Well, Jackrabbit did most of the heavy lifting, of course, but you did your fair share, really. Just get back in bed, read a chapter, and you’ll be out.” She circled around the bed and climbed back in, wondering all the while if she should go and get one of Jon’s engineering texts. That should put her right out.
On her second attempt, she managed to get through a whole page, but she comprehended none of it, her mind still whirling with Jon and her new home. Tossing the book aside once more, she grabbed the remote control and flipped on the enormous new flatscreen telly that Jon had mounted on the wall across from the foot of the bed. He’d known she’d want one but had no interest in the device himself, so he’d put it in her bedroom rather than in the lounge.
Donna had always been a night owl and so she knew there’d be nothing on worth more than background noise, but admiring the quality of the picture and rolling her eyes at Jon’s insistence on adding new speakers when he got the chance occupied her for a few minutes, at least. After the second cycle through the listings, she turned the telly off and tossed the remote on the stand, where it bounced and clattered to the floor just beyond the edge of the large rug that covered the hardwood. She shrugged. She’d fetch that tomorrow morning.
“All right. Now what?” Her eyes were wide open and her mind was unable to focus on anything for long, drifting upstairs every chance it got.
She heard a soft thuh-thud sound somewhere out beyond her door, like a large cat, on the prowl in the darkness, jumping down from a high fence. She smiled. “Come in,” she called before her visitor could knock.
The door opened a crack and Jon’s head poked through, his hair mussed into spikes and tangles. “Hi.” His eyes darted around the room as if he feared retribution for daring to breach this forbidden sanctuary. “Can’t sleep. Just thought I’d come down to, er, say hi.”
“Hi,” she repeated with a mischievous smile. “Come on. You don’t have to stand there, you know.” She patted the duvet next to her in invitation.
“All right.” He padded in, wearing a thin t-shirt and sweatpants, and, rather than sitting on the proffered spot on the bed, grabbed the chair by the vanity and, turning it around, sat down straddling it, leaning on the back.
“I can’t sleep either,” Donna admitted. “Everything’s too exciting, and of course, I’d really rather be with you than down here, so I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Well, there’s nothing saying you have to go to sleep now. Tomorrow’s Sunday. You can sleep in as late as you like.”
“I can, can’t I?” Donna drawled, her eyes wide as it hit her. “It’s been years since I had my own flat. I forgot what it’s like. Mum usually has something going on Sundays, and when she doesn’t, she cooks breakfast for the family. I haven’t slept in in forever.” She bounced up and down, then grabbed a pillow and hugged it to herself. “Now I’m even more worked up.”
Jon shrugged. “Well, when you do finally nod off, it’ll be a good one.”
“Yeah, it will. So, what about you?”
His eyebrow arched high. “What about me, what?”
“Too excited to sleep, too? Had to come down to visit?”
“Er, yeah. Been a busy day, it has.” He flashed her a grin, but she’d learnt early on how to spot when he was hiding something.
“But that’s not it at all, is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he murmured as he gazed at the boxes on the vanity. “It’s brilliant having you here.”
“It’s not nothing. Come on, Ears, tell me what’s wrong.”
Jon sighed. “All right. But you’ve got to understand, it’s not your fault,” he added, the words tripping over each other as they rushed out. “It’s, well, it’s just been a bit noisy.”
Donna’s jaw dropped, and her eyes flicked to the wardrobe, to the telly, to where the remote lay on the floor, hidden from her by the edge of the bed. She clapped a hand to her overactive mouth. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” she whispered.
“No, no! It’s not that,” he hastened to assure her, tipping the chair forward to reach out and squeeze her knee hidden under the bedclothes. “You aren’t too loud, really, not at all, no more so than the neighbours. I’m just not used to the sounds coming from inside the flat. I hear a thud and I jump up wondering who’s got in. It’ll just take a bit of getting used to.”
“I didn’t realise it would be a problem, but of course it would, wouldn’t it? Oh, and you heard me wittering on, didn’t you?” She clapped her hands over her mouth. I’ll be quiet, I promise.”
“No,” Jon laughed, “never. Never be quiet. I love hearing your voice.”
“But I can’t go on bothering you like that,” she protested.
“You’re no bother, Donna. It really is just that it’s been years since I’ve had someone else in my flat. It’d be an adjustment for anyone.”
Though every sign indicated his sincerity, Donna didn’t quite believe him. That was probably on her, though: he was always so reluctant to say anything that might push her away, she suspected him of hiding things more often than she ought. “Well, promise me that you’ll let me know when it’s a problem, all right?”
“I will. I promise.”
Donna glanced back up at the telly, making a mental note to turn the volume way down the next chance she got. “Though I don’t know how you can just ignore what you hear. I know you’ve said you just tune it out, but any little noise would wake me up straight away.”
“You just do.” He settled his chin on the back of his hands and explained. “Lots of people live in noisy areas, cars going back and forth all the time, or near the high street where there’s people around at all hours of the night, and they get used to it. Or,” and he winked at her, “you have siblings that teach you. My brother Chris, when I was ten or so, he used to practise on his drum pad at night. Didn’t take long to learn to sleep through that.”
Donna gaped. “Your dad allowed that?”
“He never knew. My room shared a wall with Chris’, but theirs was across the hall, and Chris worked out just how loud to play to annoy me without bothering them. Worked out in the end, though.” His eyes sparkled as he tugged at an ear. “When I started on violin, I got him back. He couldn’t complain because I’d just tell Dad that he’d been doing it to me all along, and let me tell you, a badly-played violin is much worse than a well-played drum. And it did wonders for my dynamics control. No one plays soft like I do.”
After laughing with him, Donna scooted over so that she could hold his hand whilst they talked. “So now it’s the same thing all over again, except it’s the neighbours.”
“Yup-ah. I’m used to it now.”
She looked around to imagine the layout of the converted warehouse. “There’s what, eight flats in this block? That’s a lot of noise to filter.”
Jon shook his head. “It’s not that bad. Only the adjacent flats, really, except when the couple in the far upstairs are having a row. Everyone hears it when they’re at each other. You’ll see. Happens about once a month.”
Donna snorted. “She shouts like me, I bet.”
“Actually, he’s the loud one. Big... booming... baritone.” Donna suspected Jon enhanced his imitation of the voice by using his sonic control to drop his tenor down an octave or more. “Could be an opera singer if he wanted. She can’t match him, so she throws things. If the thumps are fast, it’s shoes, I think, but once there was a big heavy thonk that I think was a laptop. Kitchenware goes clang.”
Donna glanced up at the ceiling, in the general direction of the far flat. “Maaaaybe I should just head back home before I get caught in the crossfire.”
Jon grabbed her ankle. “Oh, no. You’re stuck here. Never let you go. But the rest of them are nice for the most part.”
“And you get to hear every little secret, don’t you?”
“The walls muffle a lot, but even then, I hear a lot more than I should.” He twisted into an apologetic shrug. “Yeah, I know them pretty well.”
“Have you met them at all?”
“I know Mrs. Patterson. She’s next door, on the other side of the kitchen wall.” He thumbed over his shoulder out toward the lounge. “She’s been there for a few years. When I moved in here, I heard this high-pitched electronic whine coming from that side. Couldn’t stand it, and it was early on, just a couple of months after… well, you know, so I hadn’t learnt to filter. But it didn’t take long to figure out it was her telly. She had one of those old tellies, still does, actually, a big heavy one, screen a quarter of that one there, and it whined once it warmed up. So I went over and introduced myself, and wormed my way into fixing it up.”
“That was kind of you.”
“Completely selfish, I assure you. That sound was driving me bonkers.” He dug at his ear at the memory of the noise. “But she’s a sweet old lady. Rather lonely, sadly. Turns out she’s from Bristol, but her son convinced her to move out, saying it’s easier for him to take care of her nearby. He bought her the flat, but he rarely visits. I’ve heard him less than ten times in two years now, and he only lives over in Ealing. So she’s making do as best she can, book club and knitting club and all that, and lots of time on the phone with her friends back home. I think she’d rather have a terrace with a garden, but she’s stuck here.”
“You know her very well.”
“Yup, I do. She has me for tea every Saturday when I can, so I get to check up on her and maintain her flat.” The sparkle in his eye told Donna that he was quite fond of the woman. “I told her I couldn’t make it today cos you were moving in, but next week, I hope you’ll join me. She wants to meet you.”
“Of course. That’d be lovely.” Donna shook her head. “Tea with her every Saturday, and then up the hill twice a week with Gramps. How do you have time for anything else?”
“I do my best.” His face fell for a moment as something occurred to him. He grasped her leg again for a reassuring squeeze. “And I’ll make time for you, I promise. Anything you need.”
Donna leant forward to take his hand and rub it between hers. “How many times do I have to tell you, Ears, that it’s not about giving up your life for mine? I wanna do my thing and I want you to do your thing, and we’ll also do our thing.”
“We-e-ell”, he drawled, “it’s just that, you’re here now, finally - I mean, not finally, but, well, I really never thought you’d ever, but that’s neither here nor there. But now that you’re here, all moved in and all, I want you to be happy and I want you to like it, because if you ever -”
“Jon! Jon!” she shouted over him. “Yes, yes, I know! Stop! Just stop!” She gave him a moment to compose himself, surreptitiously swallowing a smile. She knew that he wouldn’t want to know that she found his shyness and insecurity adorable and charming. “Jon, I love you, and I love it here. I’ve been wanting to be here for months now. You’re stuck with me now. Can’t get rid of me no matter how hard you try.”
He grinned. “I’d never.”
“Good. That’s settled. Now, there’s only one thing wanting.”
A shade of fear flashed through his eyes. “What’s that?”
She patted the bed beside herself. “Someone to lean against. Why’re you way over there?”
“I wasn’t sure what the rules were.”
“You know, your bed, your privacy. That kind of thing.”
Donna sighed. “The rule is, I patted the bed. Right when you came in.” She did it again, pointing at her own hand slapping the bed in an exaggerated demonstration. “You see? Patting the bed means, ‘Come sit here’. Got it, Jackrabbit?”
“Then get over here.”
Rising up, Jon swung the chair back to its home by the vanity, then slipped under the duvet Donna was holding up for him and settled next to her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders to pull her close. As she nestled into his shoulder, the hum of his sonic field told her that he was relaxed and content. She hadn’t yet figured out which sounds corresponded to which moods, but she knew that one and it always soothed her. “Now this is better. I could fall asleep like this.”
She felt more than heard his low chuckle. “I could, too.” He nuzzled her hair and kissed the top of her head. “Someday, maybe.”
“So what about the others?”
“Your other neighbours. There’s more than just Mrs. Patterson.”
“Oh. Well, the one across the hall, that’s Frank Karpathi.” As he spoke, his sonic field changed, rising to a higher, nervous whine. Donna kept silent, wondering what it meant. “American bloke, financier or stock broker or something like that. Comes here every few months for a fortnight or so. Even then, he’s never there, and when he is, he’s on his mobile making deals. I don’t know what to think about him.”
Donna frowned and placed a comforting hand on his chest. “Why’s that?”
“I try not to listen to his conversations but sometimes I can’t help but pick up a bit. I don’t know anything about business and finance, mind you, but some of the things he’s said sound a bit, well, shady.”
“Oh. And of course, you can’t ask anyone.”
“Nope-ah. Even if I understood, what could I do about it? Who’d believe me?” He mimicked a potential conversation. “‘Yes, I heard him say that through two walls and across the hall.’ They’d get me for both invasion of privacy and being a loony.”
“We already know you’re a loony,” she joked. “You don’t need to say you’re asking about him. Ask in a general sense, like, ‘What does this mean? I heard it on a telly programme.’”
Jon twitched, trying not to disturb her. “Well, better off trying the web first. But my dad would probably know. Maybe I'll give him a call.”
“There’s always the holidays,’ suggested Donna. “It’ll give you two something neutral to talk about.”
“Not a bad idea,” agreed Jon. Donna relaxed as his hum quieted.
“What about the flat above us?” she asked after a couple of minutes of comfortable silence.
“Hm? Oh. That’s Erica and Kevin.” He shifted a little to more easily bury his nose in her hair, his favourite cuddle position. “They’ve only been there about five months. I think they’re renting from Paul, the bloke who lived there before. Haven’t actually met them, but they seem nice enough.”
The hum in Donna’s ear shifted again, and she sat up and looked Jon in the eye. “And what’s wrong with them?”
Jon stared, taken aback by her sudden mood shift. “Nothing’s wrong with them. Why would you think that?”
She wagged a finger at his shoulder. “Your sound thingy changed just as you said that.”
“Bloody hell! You’re cheating!” he grumped.
“You always cheat, Ears, listening to my heartbeat. I’m just doing the same.” She grinned as he glanced away, embarrassed. “So, what’s wrong with them?”
“Honestly, nothing.” He looked up at the ceiling as if he could picture them up there in their flat. “They seem really devoted to each other. I think they only recently got together, like, less than a year, and they’re, well, they’re a bit active.”
He scratched at the back of his neck, inexplicably abashed. “Yeah, and since they’re above, things can get a bit noisy.”
“Oh, I see.” And then suddenly Donna got it. She turned back to him and nodded slowly. “Wait. You mean active.”
Spots rose on Jon’s cheeks. “Yes. And adventurous. That’s another good word for it.”
“And you can hear them.”
A forgotten image flashed through Donna’s mind, of an evening, just after she’d moved back home after her latest breakup. She’d glanced out of her upstairs window and saw the couple across the street making love, the bedroom drapes wide open. It had been twice as humiliating for her, as she’d just lost her own partner, but Jon’s situation must have been a hundred times worse, living below it all the time, able to hear it all in detail. “Oh, you poor thing! That’s got to be awful!”
The colour on Jon’s cheeks deepened as he murmured, “Yeah, it is,” but the blush drove Donna to a different conclusion.
“No, it’s not, is it? You like it, don’t you? You like listening to them.” Her eyes sparkled with cheeky laughter.
“No, I don’t!” he insisted, but she knew that he was lying and that he knew that she knew.
He ducked away so she couldn’t see his face and ran his free hand through his hair. “It’s not like that,” he declared, his voice tight and strained. “You must think I’m a right pervert, but really, it isn’t like that at all.” He took a deep breath to recover his pride, then explained. “It was a shock when they moved in. I mean, there are couples in the other flats - there’s the Swansons across from Mrs. Patterson, and I told you about the ones in the far upstairs, and I could hear them and I just ignored them. But Erica and Kevin… they’re… they’re passionate. It’s not easy to ignore, especially when it’s all the time, and the first few times, I got bloody angry about having to listen to all that. But then I thought, I could get upset - and frustrated, mind you - or I could just enjoy it.”
“It’s okay, Jon. It really is” Donna interjected, rubbing his shoulder to calm him down, but he barrelled on. He seemed as intent on convincing himself as on convincing her.
“I mean, I’m only human, I have a sex drive, and I thought, since I wasn’t ever going to get to touch another person again, wouldn’t it be okay to enjoy it by proxy?”
Donna reached up and touched his chin, turning him to her. “Of course it’s okay, Ears. It’s perfectly natural getting turned on by it.”
He barked a laugh. “Nothing about me is ‘perfectly natural’. And I can’t say I’m exactly pleased that my powers have turned me into a…” He paused, searching for the right word. “What would you call it? ‘Voyeur’ isn’t really it, is it? Auditeur, maybe?”
“But you’re not, are you?” she asked. “It’s not a fetish. You don’t seek it out, listening to them.”
“No. I haven’t listened to them for a while now.” He hugged her to his chest. “I don’t need that anymore, for some reason. For some wonderful, amazing, brilliant reason.”
“I love you, too, Jackrabbit,” she whispered back. “But even if you still did, that’s fine, you know. There’s nothing wrong with whatever turns you on, as long as it’s not harmful.”
“Well,” he drawled, “there’s the question of invasion of privacy, as well as consent.”
She pulled back and swatted him on the arm, then nestled back against him. “You’re making this a lot more complicated than it is. It’s not your fault they’re loud enough that you can hear them.”
“Technically it is my fault, but I get your point.”
“So,” and she prodded him in the chest with a finger, “are they there now?”
“Erica and Kevin?” he asked, puzzled. “They’ve been home all evening.”
“Are they going at it?”
He paused to listen. “Not now. Can’t hear much, so they must be doing something quiet. I’d hear Kevin’s snoring if they were asleep. But they were earlier, when we got home from dinner. And back when we were bringing in your vanity. Remember you heard a crash from upstairs and I said it sounded like someone knocked over something in the kitchen. That was them.”
“In the kitchen?”
“She likes the countertop.”
“Blimey. Active and adventurous.”
“As I said.”
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing to do about it.”
Twisting in his arms, Donna pushed him back against the headboard and plastered her lips over his. She climbed on top of him, grinding down as she straddled him, and smiled as she felt his response. “Give them a taste of their own medicine, I say,” she murmured into his mouth.
Jon wrapped his arms around her and grabbed her bum to rub up against her. “They won’t be able to hear us from down here.”
She nibbled down his neck. “They could probably hear me from Glasgow -”
“You’re - ah! - you’re never letting me live that one down, are you?”
“Never. But you’re right.” She jumped out of the bed and beckoned him with a single coy finger. “C’mon, Ears. Don’t dawdle.”
“This could start a war, you know,” he cautioned as he followed her.
She grabbed his hand and dragged him out toward the stairs leading up to his room. “I’m counting on it.”