short story

Departures

Ellen focused hard on the sound of metal bolts unlatching at the back of the cabin to distract her from the unsettling roar of the engines. She stared out of the window at the skyline below, which was exactly how she imagined Manhattan at dusk would look from four thousand feet in the air – a glittering mass of light and steel, reflected against the East River, mirroring a dark underworld beneath the surface. She felt a swell of emotion deep in her chest as the aeroplane climbed in altitude, away from the city she had made her home for six months; away from him.

‘Are you alright, dear?’

Ellen turned her head sharply to the left, blinking suddenly and dislodging a tear which began to roll luminously down her cheek.

‘I’m sorry, I’m fine, thank you.’

‘Would you like one?’

A woman in 48C held out a small packet of Kleenex across the empty middle seat. Ellen hesitated for a second before taking one and pressing the smooth edge against her eyelid.

‘Sad to be going home? Did you have a nice vacation?’

‘I’ve been in the States for a while actually. Six months.’

‘That’s some holiday,’ the woman replied.

‘My work visa expired today, so I had to leave.’

‘And you weren’t ready to go?’

‘No. Not at all.’

The woman rested back against the headrest, blinking behind her horn-rimmed glasses. Ellen thought her eyes looked unusually large, magnified behind the thick lenses. She was perhaps in her late sixties, maybe older.

‘Six months is a long time. I suppose you made friends?’

‘I did.’

‘I’m sure you’ll keep in touch. It’s certainly easier than in my day, now you have the internet. Not that I have any idea how that all works.’

Ellen was trying not to think about him. Their last dinner together at their favourite Italian trattoria in the Village, the way he held her tightly as her gate number was called. The look on his face as she turned back to smile a final goodbye. She knew it was over. Their relationship had an identical expiry date to the document stuck inside her passport. That was what they had agreed at the beginning of the summer. But that was before she fell in love.

‘Would you like anything from the trolley?’ A cheerful steward in a cherry-red uniform appeared at the end of their row.

‘I think this young lady needs a drink.’

‘Red wine, please.’

‘Good choice. I’ll take a gin.’

The steward smiled and passed over two small plastic bottles and tumblers. Ellen scrunched the tissue into a ball and pushed it under the sleeve of her sweater.

‘Thank you.’ Ellen decanted the Merlot and turned back to the passenger. She wanted to be alone, but for the next seven hours, she had no choice but to be polite. ‘Are you heading to the UK for a visit?’

‘I’m visiting my sister-in-law in Surrey. She has grown-up children about your age and her first grandchild on the way in the spring.’

‘Were you originally from England?’

‘No, I’m a New Yorker to my bones. My husband’s parents were British scientists who emigrated to the US after the war. His sister was interested in her heritage and went to college in London, then met her husband and never came back.’

‘Is he… is your husband travelling with you?’

‘You could say that.’ The woman reached into her handbag and pulled out a small metal box, inscribed with the initials G. E. S.

‘Oh, I’m sorry, I should never have asked.’ Ellen felt her cheeks reddening. She was uncomfortable in the presence of a dead man’s ashes, suddenly aware of her own mortality. They had climbed to thirty thousand feet and were at a level cruise.

‘Don’t apologise, it’s good to talk about him. He died two months ago. Frances felt I was spending too much time alone, so asked me to stay with her for a few weeks. She’s a wonderful person. George loved her a great deal, despite the distance.’

Ellen dug her fingernails into her palms, staring at the laminated safety card in the seat pocket in front of her.

‘You must have been married a long time?’ Ellen hoped she wasn’t asking questions that would offend. Something told her this woman wanted to talk.

‘Fifteen years. He was my second husband, I was married to some schmuck for thirty years before I met George. Thirty years I won’t get back!’ The woman laughed softly, shaking her head.

Ellen smiled, keen to show she was in on the joke, despite the hollow warning.

‘The thing about marriage is,’ the woman continued, ‘when you’re young and idealistic you think you’ll ride off into the sunset with this gorgeous man who makes you feel as if you’re floating on air. Then you both grow older and fatter and start fighting over silly things like the fact he never remembers your mother’s birthday, or the way he leaves challah crumbs all over the rug you just spent an hour vacuuming. One day you wake up and realise it won’t get any better. Though I can’t say that about George; he was the most wonderful man in the world.’

‘Where did you meet?’

‘Oh, it’s a great story. Our eyes met across a pyramid of rugelach at Zabar’s on West 80th and Broadway. I was buying pastries for the ladies at my book group and he was looking for something to take to his grand-daughter’s high school graduation ceremony so that he didn’t go hungry. I loved that about George. He always thought ahead and was prepared for every eventuality. He took his own urn to be engraved so that I didn’t have to worry about it.’

The woman pushed her glasses up her nose and sighed. Ellen held her plastic wine glass tighly.

‘He sounds wonderful. I hope I meet my George one day.’

‘Thank you, my dear. I take it this young man in Manhattan isn’t the one?’

‘He’s… it’s impossible. We live on opposite sides of the sea.’ Ellen turned to look out of the window again, catching the last of the sunset before it slipped under the horizon.

‘Love across borders. It would make a good novel, wouldn’t it? British girl and American boy stick two fingers up at our lousy President and create a bridge across the Atlantic, connecting each other’s hearts. I’m sure we’d be happy to read it in book group.’

‘I’m not quite sure it works like that, much as I’d like it to. I have a job to go back to, rent to pay. Plus, I’m not even sure if that’s what he wants! We never really spoke about how we felt. It would’ve made it all too real.’

‘That’s the problem with young people, you’re all too cagey about your feelings. Being in love with someone is the most wonderful thing you could possibly experience. I’ll never understand why anyone would keep that information to themselves. George told me he was crazy about me four hours after we met in Zabar’s, and we have been inseparable ever since.’

The cabin lights dimmed, indicating that the passengers should attempt to sleep.

‘He took me to this ‘open mic’ event at an Irish pub about a month after we met, and completely without warning he jumped onstage and started singing a Billy Joel song with total enthusiasm, like he didn’t even care he was out of tune and not keeping in time with the pianist. Everyone was laughing at how bloody awful he was, but not at him, they were just enjoying the way he was holding the stand and growling into the microphone. I was laughing so hard when he sat down after he’d finished I thought I was going to wet myself. That’s when I realised I loved him. It was like, from that moment on I was changed. Like someone had flicked a switch.’

‘I know that feeling. You never forget it, and in some ways it never leaves you. Once you let yourself love someone, you carry it with you forever.’

‘I’ll find that again, though, won’t I?’

‘Of course you will. It’ll hurt for a while but eventually you’ll be able to look at photographs of him without wanting to hurl yourself into the nearest body of water.’

‘God, I’m so sorry, look at me acting like an pathetic teenager when you’ve lost the love of your life.’ Ellen put her hands up to her face and rubbed her eyes.

‘Don’t apologise. We have both lost someone we cared about very much. Better try and get some sleep, dear. It’s a long journey ahead.’

short story

Bad Date Diaries #3: Beard

It’s my first ever online date. Michael suggests an All Bar One in Covent Garden, near the Actor’s Church. He’s an actor, you see. I think this was what first attracted me to his online dating resume, along with his numerical maturity (thirty-one) and a hope that he knows his Beckett from his Bennett.

He greets me outside the tube station at the junction where too many people loiter, causing a bottleneck and untold misery for all. I have never had a grown man interested in me before, and it’s a little overwhelming. He could maybe pass for twenty-seven, which is still an advance on my twenty years on the planet, nineteen of which have been spent on a tiny island.

I don’t really listen to what he’s talking about as we walk down the street; something about drama lessons. The London Actor’s Centre Is Better Than Pineapple For Movement Classes, he is saying. I run over the line in my head, banking the information for later in case he asks for my opinion.

We cross the road and enter the chain bar, sitting down at a table suitable for at least another four people. He asks if I’d like a drink, and I order a gin and tonic, which I’d only recently started getting the hang of.

“Hendricks, please, if they have it, with a slice of cucumber.”

He comes back with a Gordons, the plasticky botanicals are jarring. It’s alright that he went for house gin, I think. He’s not earning much, being an actor.

Michael asks what I study at university and I begin to tell him some things about my degree course. His eyes dart around a lot as I speak, so I focus on his beard. A tiny cluster of black fibres is caught in the bottom of his blond beard hair, and I look at it for a while. I wonder if I should make a joke of it, point it out to break the ice.

You’ve got some of your scarf on your face.

or

Your beard is a little overdressed, perhaps it’d like to take off its coat.

or

You’ve got fluff in your chin crack.

I decide not to mention it. I ask him who his favourite actor is instead.

“Oh, well,” he says. That’d have to be Al Pacino. What a talent.”

“Do you like Benedict Cumberbatch?” I ask.

“What?”

“He’s a good actor, no? In Sherlock. Do you watch it?”

“I’ve seen an episode or two. Taxi Driver, though, what a great film. Great film.” He shakes his head.

“I haven’t seen it,” I say.

“You haven’t seen it? I thought you were a film student?”

The fluff in his beard has migrated to the other side of his chin.

“No, I read music. Bach and Mozart and stuff like that. I take a class on synchronising sound to film, though.”

“Hey! I’m walking here! Ha ha ha. I can’t believe a film student hasn’t seen Taxi Driver, Jesus.”

“Isn’t that a quote from Midnight Cowboy?”

“What? No, it’s definitely Taxi Driver,” Michael says, looking past me at a slim blonde woman leaning against the bar. I realise that my G&T is almost finished. We have only been here forty-two minutes, and Cosmopolitan.com said if a date lasts less than an hour, it’s a ‘grade A disaster’.

“Can I get us another round?” I ask, standing up. I’m not sure if “round” is the right word, since it’s just the two of us, and I feel my cheeks burning.

“Sure.” He glances at the clock on the wall, shifting his eyes away from the blonde woman’s cleavage long enough to conceptualise time. “I can probably fit another one in.”

I return with two pints of cloudy-looking ale, which are tepid and smell like soggy haystacks. He says “thanks” while staring at his phone. I imagine he’s telling his mate about the attractive woman at the bar he isn’t currently on an internet date with, but dearly wishes he was.

“Hey, so my mate is on Southbank so I’ll finish up here and head over, if that’s cool?”

“Oh, sure, don’t let me keep you,” I sip my expensive pint, trying not to breathe through my nose. “Cheers.”

The black fluff has headed north to his left cheek. I can’t take my eyes off it. Michael continues looking at his phone, ignoring me. I venture some further conversation to break the silence.

“Did you always want to be an actor?”

“Nah, I just wasn’t very academic so it seemed like a good idea after I left school.”

“I thought I might go into acting, maybe musical theatre–”

He made a snorting sound, his head snapping up, eyes lingering on my torso.

“I mean, you have to look a certain way to do that.”

“How’s that?” I feel my eyebrows shoot into my hairline, hidden by my massive fringe.

“You know… have the right type of body.”

I inhale slowly, tracing my fingers up the damp pint glass.

“I see. Well, thanks for the advice, you saved me the bother of many rejected castings.”

“No problem.”

I pull a face, again mostly concealed by my hair. Did he think I was being genuine, when he’d just…

“Listen, my mate is actually keen for me to go and meet him now, do you mind?” Michael looks earnest, glancing at the door.

“No, go ahead.”

I’m desperate for him to leave. Michael stands up, six quid-worth of disgusting pint untouched.

“Nice one, my dude.” He fist-bumps me, and leaves.

I sit back in the chair, feeling my whole body relax, and catch the eye of the blonde woman by the bar.

“Bit old for you, isn’t he?” She smiles, and I extend the corners of my mouth sideways in response. “Wonder why he can’t find someone his own age. You probably had a lucky escape, there.”

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

Magpie

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.