short story

Bad Date Diaries #2: Norwegian Wood

I meet him at improv class, which at twenty-three I think is exceptionally cool. I’m impressed by the fact I can tell my friends back home that his dad used to be on the television, or at least gets a writing credit at the end of my favourite eighties sitcom.

He takes me to a pub at the top of a hill in Bristol, one with a fashionable wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of the room that makes the air thick with acrid smoke.

We don’t eat, I’m too nervous. It’s a bad habit I’ve developed on dates that I don’t realise is a problem yet. With nothing to line my stomach, I get too drunk. But not tonight, because I’m driving home.

He doesn’t ask me much about myself, but tells me in great detail about his degree – History and English Literature, joint honours – and lists all of the poets he enjoys. He even quotes me some verse from an old notebook he keeps in the interior pocket of his waxed jacket. I’m flattered by this, and it all feels very romantic and strange. He says he doesn’t often share his own work with other people. I choose to imagine that’s true.

He asks me what music I like; I say, old. He says, so do you like the Beatles? Ha, I say, who doesn’t, I’d hate to hang out with that person. What’s your favourite song, he asks.

I sit back on my chair and say, hmm, that’s a tough one. I like the ones nobody else likes, the ones about broken relationships and madness. You’d expect girls to say ‘Blackbird’ or ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but my favourite is ‘Norwegian Wood’.

You’re right, that’s a bit niche, he says. I like that about you, you’re surprising.

We finish our drinks and he asks me if I’d like to go back to his place for a bit, in the grand, old part of the city which houses most of the university. It’s a crisp autumn night and I’m enjoying his company, so I say yes. Plus, my car is outside the Student’s Union.

We walk along the row of shops towards the village and he stops dead. Hey, you hear that? He looks at me, wide-eyed, disbelieving.

I stop by tripping over a loose flagstone, and listen. No, I say, that’s ridiculous.

All that pizza oven smoke must be making us hallucinate, he says. There’s no way that’s what I think it is.

We press our ears against the glass door of the wine bar. A guitarist plays a slowed-down version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ to an audience of five or so, plus the two of us standing outside.

I can’t believe it, he says. What a coincidence. We look at each other, then, and I wonder if he’ll kiss me. He laughs and shakes his head. We keep walking.

Ivy-covered houses bear down on us, pale relics of colonialism curving around crescents and circuses. This one’s mine, he says, stopping outside a dark mansion with at least four floors. The woman who lives on the ground floor is such an old bitch, she’s always complaining about the noise.

He leads me up a huge flight of stairs onto the landing and I follow him into a small kitchen. Did you hear about that fresher girl who got raped? Walked home drunk and some local guys attacked her, dragged her down an alley or something.

The word has a sharpness and makes me flinch.

Yes, I saw it on Facebook. The SU put out an alert. The advice was stupid, they said the female students should avoid walking by themselves at night. That’s just victim blaming, if you ask me.

Ah, he says. It’s sensible advice, no?

What do you mean? I take the glass of tap water he offers me, wiping the soap scum off the rim with my sleeve which I hope he doesn’t notice.

Like, they said she was so drunk she could barely stand. She was stupid to wander off at night by herself in that state. He’s frowning now.

Surely the only thing causing sexual assault is the men who carry it out? I say, hoping I’m not coming across like too much of a feminist. I’m not sure if I’m one of those, yet.

I guess, he says. He sounds grumpy. I want him to be smiling again, I’ve made him uncomfortable. You sure you don’t want a glass of wine? He reaches into a high cupboard and I hear the clink of glass against glass.

I’m driving home, remember. Or would you rather I walk all the way back to Redland and risk being attacked?

He seems to think I’m making a joke, because he laughs. I badly want to change the subject. He pours himself a large drink.

We go into his room and his mood changes again. Hey, can you play guitar, he asks, or says.

I can, a bit. He hands me an expensive, vintage Stratocaster and plugs the lead into a large amp in the corner of his bedroom, turning up the main volume dial.

Won’t your neighbour get annoyed? It’s pretty late. We could just sit and listen to music instead, I say, eyeing a record player on the floor.

If you won’t play, I’ll show you something, if you like? He takes the guitar out of my hands before I can reply and plays a fairly easy riff, the sort of thing teenage boys play at house parties. It’s an anticlimax, but at least it isn’t Wonderwall, I think.

Are you into musicians?

I like creatives, I say. I like writers, artists. Comedians.

Comedians are often depressives. Do you know, my godfather is one of the most well-loved comics in the country, but he’s been on Prozac since the mid-seventies. Had complete mental breakdown about ten years ago but his publicist managed to keep it all out of the papers.

He continues playing the same four-bar riff over and over, raising his voice to a shout which only adds to the cacophony. I want him to turn it down, but I don’t know how to ask.

He’s pretty good-looking, I think. Quite delicate features, pale hair and high cheekbones. I wonder why he hasn’t tried anything yet, and cross one leg over the other after I sit down on the edge of the bed.

He keeps playing for a long time, and I start to wonder if I should leave. The situation is confusing, and I don’t have enough experience of this sort of thing to know what to do.

Hey, um, I might head off, I say.

What? He frowns, raising his chin.

I said, I might head off. Tonight was fun, we should hang out again soon.

Oh, sure. He puts the guitar down and the feedback vibrates in my eardrums like an itch.

He does kiss me, then. I feel myself lean into him and want to stay like this for a bit longer. He shows me to the door of the flat, and doesn’t ask for my number.

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.