Branded by Shola Olowu Asante

A high-pitched drilling sound roused Matt from sleep. He reached for the mobile phone on the bedside table, spilling marine blue light across the sheets. No sign of a missed call. About to sink back into subconsciousness, he heard it again. No mistake this time. It was the doorbell.

Matt dragged his unwilling body out of bed and along the hallway, wondering who the hell it could be at this time. He opened the door and cold, dagger sharp raindrops pelted his skin. A bedraggled woman in a trench coat stood on the other side.

'Shit.'

'I'm sorry Matt. I've come straight from the airport. I had nowhere else to go.'

Matt hadn't seen or heard from Chloe in months. Couldn't remember precisely what he said the last time but knew she shouldn't be here.

'What's wrong with your own flat?'

He stood in the doorway, determined not to relinquish an inch of space.

'I don't want to be alone. I need you.'

Matt wanted to turn away but she looked so pitiful, teeth chattering, the wind whipping up her skirt so he could see the top of her thighs. He groaned and trudged away.

'Shut the door behind you.'

Chloe followed him inside, the wheels of her suitcase clicking as they rolled across the laminate floor. Or maybe it was her high heels. When he turned round, she threw herself at him, perfumed arms around his shoulders, her damp hair in the crook of his neck. Matt tried not to think about her breasts pressing into his chest, the heat of her body soaking through his jogging bottoms. He didn't hug back. Used his thumbs and index fingers to pry her away, as if removing something unsavoury.

'Aren't you even a little pleased to see me?' she asked, with a pout.

So much for being contrite.

'I thought we agreed not to do this anymore.'

Her lips trembled and the words came out with a sob. 'Philip left me.'

Now the story poured out in a torrent and Matt knew it would be a different variation of the same theme. Beautiful people with trust funds and yachts, fabulous parties in St Tropez or Lake Como. Another failed relationship because she couldn't help but come across as too needy. There was still something of the council estates and foster homes about her. Like an alley cat, seemingly malnourished despite regular feeding.

'I'm sorry.'

'I know you are darling,' she said, dabbing at her eyes with the sleeve of her jacket so her mascara smudged. 'You're the only one who cares.'

He let out a mirthless laugh. They had been friends since they were young and from time to time a little more. He used to hope whenever she landed on his doorstep she would finally stop running, choose him for good. He would have given anything for that.

'You can't stay here Chloe. Not this time.'

'Please Matt. I can't stand to be by myself. I really thought he was different from the others. I thought this was the one.' Her voice broke again and her skin was blotchy. Too wretched to be reminded how often he'd heard that refrain.

'Things are different now. I'm with someone. Eve. She's coming over tomorrow and I think it's best you're not here.'

He'd met Eve a few months back through a mutual friend. She didn't need fixing, wasn't looking over her shoulder for something better. He was enjoying the novelty.

'Oh, I see.' Chloe looked at him with a mysterious smile, eyes brilliant with excitement. 'Of course, I'll disappear in the morning. Thanks for being such a good friend.'

Later, after leaving her in the spare room, Matt fingered the scar on his chin acquired at sixteen, taking a punch that was meant for her. It had felt as if he'd been branded. But he was done with all that now. He succumbed to sleep and dreamt he was surrounded by nubile concubines. Hundreds of Chloes and Eves pleading and chanting, 'I need you. We need you.'

The next morning Matt woke up grinning, but soon frowned at the smell of freshly brewed coffee and bacon. By the time he got to the kitchen, he was queasy. He heard two female voices and prayed the television was on.

'Morning sleepyhead.'

There was no God. Eve gave him a reproachful smile. As for Chloe, he couldn't bear to look at her. She was wearing one of his shirts, her bare legs, smooth and indecent.

'What time is it?' He was stalling.

'Time to do some explaining,' said Eve.

Matt gulped.

'Why didn't you tell me about your cousin?'

'Er …'

Eve explained they'd had a simply 'marvelous' morning, getting to know each other. And how awful for Chloe after everything she'd been through to have nowhere to stay.

Matt dropped into an armchair, nodding and agreeing in all the right places. He watched them both, finishing each other's sentences, moving with the grace and ease of dancers who had known each other for years. How had he not noticed the resemblance? The same dark hair and eyes, cheekbones you could rest a glass on. The way their hands fluttered when they spoke as if communicating some secret message just for him. And now anguish, for even in the amber glow of sunlight streaming through the window, Eve was still the poor copy.

'So it's settled then.'

'What's settled?'

'Chloe will stay a week or so until she finds her feet.'

`He glanced at his sometime lover, looking smug and defiant from behind her coffee mug. He felt an urge to smash her face but she'd probably enjoy it. Eve waited for an answer, her face open as a cloudless sky. Matt wanted to cry. 'You don't mind?' he asked.

She gave him a quizzical look. 'Why would I?'

He moved into the shadows of the room and sat down for breakfast. When Chloe ran a foot down Matt's leg, he didn't push it away.

***





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