short story


All her house plants have died. It was perhaps the relentless heat, or too much water. Their waxy green leaves curled and turned brown. She didn’t notice when they started to wilt, too preoccupied with her own life to care for things whose sole purpose was to oxygenate the air and bend towards the light. The Swiss cheese plant in particular reminded her of the Victorian glasshouse in her home town, and she feels an unexpected wave of grief as she tips the roots and soil into a bin bag.

On Saturdays, she likes to walk through the park towards the high street, before circling back to her house. In the six months she has lived in this area, this has become something of a ritual, though she has never been particularly fond of routine. It is a leafy and affluent part of the city, and she often passes off-duty television personalities buying groceries and avoiding eye contact. Once, she saw her favourite childhood presenter buying a Christmas tree, and was struck by how ordinary he looked, approaching middle age, or perhaps already there.

The bad smell in the fridge turns out to be her housemate’s leftovers. She considers leaving a post-it on the shelf with a friendly note, perhaps a smiley face, but it doesn’t seem worth the hassle. She likes the women she lives with, though she never sees them. They’re older than her and also single, the five of them co-existing in this large property on the fringes of adulthood. 

She wants to see him this weekend, but knows it’s unlikely. They operate by his schedule most of the time. Her friends tell her to be less available, as this will make him want her more. The logic of this sits uncomfortably with her, though she knows this is how things work now. She lies in bed imagining conversations in which she tells him things about herself she has never told other people, not even her closest friends, and he listens quietly and holds her and she thinks about how wonderful this must be, to be loved by another person in this way. She knows this is not how it is, though, in reality. He hasn’t messaged her for a week.

‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! See you soon, love you xoxo’. She sends the message to her best friend with a blank expression that betrays the sentiment of the text. She has never said those words, out loud. Technology makes it easier to communicate the things you wouldn’t in real life: to hurt people you don’t know with an unasked for critique in an online comment section, to slide into someone’s inbox with a direct: you up? It used to amuse her to think about their first private interaction, a cartoon graphic of some eyes that only she could see. It had no accompanying text, but she knew exactly what it meant. 

Their relationship exists in pixels and code. There is no tangible evidence of their knowing each other, no photographs or public displays. She wonders if they bumped into each other during the day, in public, would he kiss her or ignore her completely. Thinking about either outcome makes her feel sick. For the past four months, they have developed an unhealthy habit involving early mornings and night tubes. She doesn’t allow herself to call it a relationship, but she isn’t seeing anyone else. Sometimes she wonders if she should, to help diffuse the confusing, searing pain when he inevitably stops replying.

It’s midday, and she gazes out of the kitchen window, watching a magpie perched on her neighbour’s hedge. One for sorrow. Her eyes scan around the garden, hoping to catch sight of its mate to cancel out the low level dread she feels when she encounters one of these birds on its own. It doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it. One magpie means there is another somewhere else, probably with the nest, guarding and caring for their young. They work as a team, depending on the other completely. Two for joy. She tries to imagine what this must feel like, and closes the blinds.