We Own the Sky

We Own the Sky

Luke Allnutt

Part One


She read up a storm before she left. In her favorite hardbacked chair; in bed, propped up on a mound of pillows. The books spilled over from the bedside table, piling up on the floor. She preferred foreign detective novels and she plowed through them, her lips chastely pursed, her face rigid, unmoving.

Sometimes I would wake in the night and see the lamp was still on: Anna, a harsh, unmoving silhouette, sat with a straight back, just how she was always taught. She did not acknowledge that I had woken, even though I turned toward her, but stared down into her book, flicking through the pages as if she was cramming for a test.

At first it was just the usual suspects from Scandinavia—Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson—but then she moved on: German noir from the 1940s, a Thai series set in 1960s Phuket. The covers were familiar at first—recognizable fonts and designs from major publishers—but soon they became more esoteric, with foreign typesetting and different bindings.

And then, one day, she was gone. I don’t know where those books are now. I have looked for them since, to see if a few of them have snuck onto my shelves, but I have never found any. I imagine she took them all with her, packed them up in one of her color-coded trash bags.

The days after she left are a haze. A memory of anesthetic. Drawn curtains and neat vodka. An unsettling quietness, like the birds going silent before an eclipse. I remember sitting in the living room and staring at a crystal tumbler and wondering whether fingers of vodka were horizontal or vertical.

There was a draft that blew through the house. Under the doors, through the cracks in the walls. I think I knew where it was coming from. But I couldn’t go there. I couldn’t go upstairs. Because it wasn’t our house anymore. Those rooms did not exist, as if adults with secrets had declared them out of bounds. So I just sat downstairs, in that old dead house, the cold wind chilling my neck. They had gone, and the silence bled into everything.


Oh, I’m sure she’d love to see me now, tucked into this gloomy alcove in a grubby little pub—just me, a flickering TV, some guy pretending to be deaf selling Disney key rings that glow in the dark. The front door of the pub has a hole in it, as if someone has tried to kick it down, and through the flapping clear plastic I can see some kids hanging around in the car park, smoking and doing tricks on an old BMX.

“I told you so.” She wouldn’t say it out loud—she had too much class for that

—but it would be there on her face, the almost imperceptible raising of an eyebrow, the foreshadowing of a smile.

Anna always thought I was a bit rough, could never quite shake off the

housing project. I remember what she said when I told her my dad used to spend his Saturday afternoons in the bookie. Polite bemusement, that smug little smile.

Because no one in her family even went to pubs. Not even at Christmas? I asked once. No, she said. They might have a glass of sherry after lunch, but that would be it, nothing more. They went bell-ringing instead.

It is dark now, and I cannot remember the sun going down. A car revs outside, and headlights sweep around the pub like a prison searchlight. I go back to the bar and order another pint. Heads turn toward me but I don’t make eye contact, avoiding the stares, the inscrutable nods.

A burly fisherman is perched on a stool, facing toward the door as if the pub is his audience. He is telling a racist joke about a woman having an affair and the plucking of a lone pube, and I remember hearing it once after school, in an East London alleyway where people dumped porn mags and empty cans of Coke. The regulars laugh at the punch line, but the barmaid is silent, turns away from them.

On the wall behind her, there are pinups of topless models and framed

newspapers from the day after 9/11.

“Four pound 10, darling,” the barmaid says, putting the beer down. My hands are shaking and I fumble around in my wallet, spilling my change out onto the bar.

“Sorry,” I say, “cold hands.”

“I know,” she says, “it’s freezing out. Here, let me.” She picks up the coins from the bar and then, as if I am a frail pensioner, counts out the rest of the money from my open hand.

“There you go,” she says. “Four pound 10.”

“Thank you,” I say, a little ashamed, and she smiles. She has a kind face, the type you don’t often see in places like this.

As she bends down to unpack the dishwasher, I take a long swig of vodka

from my hip flask. It is easier than ordering a shot with every pint. It marks you as a drinker, and they keep their eyes on you then.

I go back to my table and I notice a young woman sitting at the far end of the bar. Before, she was sitting with one of the men, one of the fisherman’s friends, but now he has gone, screeched away in a souped-up hatchback. She looks like she is dressed for a night out, in a short skirt, a skimpy, glittery top, her eyelashes spiky and dark.

I watch the barmaid, checking I cannot be seen, and then take another swig of vodka and I can feel that familiar buzz, that sad little bliss. I look at the woman sitting at the bar. She is doing shots now, shouting at the barmaid, who I think is her friend. As she laughs, she nearly topples off her stool, only just catching her balance, her breath.

I will go over to her soon. Just a couple more drinks.


I flick through Facebook, squinting my eyes so I can see the screen. My profile is barren, without pictures, just a silhouette of a man, and I never “liked” or commented or wished anyone happy birthday, but I was there every day, scrolling, judging, scrolling, judging, dank little windows into the lives of people I no longer knew, with all their sunrises and sunsets, their cycle trips through the Highlands, the endless stream of Instagrammed pad Thai and avocado toast, the unfathomable smugness of their sushi dinners.

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