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The house smells of dogs, dried-in tobacco smoke, underneath that maybe the traces of something comforting like pastry or toast. The soles of his trainers stick to the lino as he follows her into the kitchen. She moves heavily, pivoting her hips and pressing a hand to the wall, dumps herself into a plastic chair and grabs her pack of Camels from the table.
I’ll be straight wivya love cause I feel bad making you come down all this way.
She draws a cigarette from the pack with her wet lips, lights it and takes a hard pull. My son’s gonna be back in two weeks and he’s very political these days. D’y know what I mean?
He nods slowly.
I would’ve said on the phone if I’d known, but you’ve got this lovely posh voice incha and I didn’t twig.
She gives him a motherly look and taps ash into a mug. One of the terriers clacks into the kitchen to drink noisily from the water bowl. I know it’s not really on, love, I’m sorry. Personally? It don’t make no difference to me. It’s not your lot who cause most of the problems anyway is it? She waves dismissively and props the cigarette in the corner of her mouth. He wouldn’t tolerate it on principle, though. He’s very difficult once he’s made his mind up about something. Anyway, we’re all entitled to our opinions aren’t we? That’s democracy, like it or lump it.
She nods and then with great effort leans to open a drawer.
Take a couple of Rocky bars, love.
Outside, he fumbles with his coatzip. The sky is the colour of dirty concrete and tiny pieces of frost are swirling about on the wind. He walks a few doors away and tries to make a rollie for the walk back to the tube. His fingertips are barely calloused any more. He presses a filtertip between his lips and rubs the rizla with his stiff thumbs. He thinks about his backpack and two holdalls back in Hackney, tucked as unobtrusively as possible into the corner of the living room. Priya’s housemates have stopped smiling at him. The wind flutters the smoking paper, he crushes it in his fist and throws it to the ground.
These days the illness comes and goes in waves, climbing and fading like nausea. It has dogged him for years and has had the upper hand before, but recently the cycles have been more rapid. He can see very clearly that everything was his fault. A certain amount of this is inevitable and it is hard to identify the authentic, healthy, necessary sadness in amongst all of it. The new pills upset his stomach, which is a particular problem in his current living situation. He often feels like he wants to apologise to all of the wedding guests who came in good faith when they only managed a year. From the outside, it must look as if they hardly tried.
The nights in the conservatory are very cold and he won’t run the oil heater for fear of noticeably bumping their electricity bill. From inside the sleeping bag, with his breath moistening his iPhone screen, he replies to the Instagram stories of an old friend who now lives in Brussels. He spends a while scrolling backwards through her feed, pausing on photos of her, before switching to Tinder.
The flat is improbably close to Notting Hill Gate tube station and is above a McDonald’s. The faint smell seeping up from underneath the scuffed parquet floor is of hot vegetable oil and melting American-style cheese slices. The large window in the living room faces southwest, and in the corner of the view is a black silhouette, the petrified corpse of Grenfell Tower. They’ve erected a narrow scaffold up one side, like a splint on a broken bone.
The titles on her small bookshelf are arranged in colour order. Quite a few American editions. He reads the blurb for a historical novel and slots it back. He’s looking back out of the window when he hears the toilet flush and her sockfeet padding back into the room. On her breath is the smell of the beer in her stomach, mixed with the warm, not-unpleasant aroma of a woman’s insides. In her first photo on the app she is on a yacht wearing a bikini and sunglasses, tensing her core, bending her spine, grinning. The Instagram filter gives her white skin a waxy, post-mortem sheen. In her second photo she is wearing a green wool jumper and holding a cat.
I know, she says, following his gaze. It makes you want to cry every time. I wish they’d hurry up and tear it down, I don’t think my heart can take it any more.
There is no sign of a cat here, but she is wearing the same green jumper. When she touches his forearm he almost pulls it away, but he doesn’t want to waste another tube fare this week. He puts a finger into her beltloop and pulls her towards him.
In the Tesco Express on Hackney road, standing at the Caribbean section of the world food aisle, thinking about money. The royalty cheques are still being sent to what is now his ex’s place. They will be pathetic, but it is getting to the point where they would be worthwhile. Still, she’d make him take other things too and he has nowhere to put them. He thinks about the records, books and instruments that are steadily absorbing moisture in his dad’s shed. 30g of Cutter’s Choice is now well over a tenner. Smoking has been good, but it’s probably time to stop.
Three young women appear, they are reading from a list.
This one says jerk powder, one says. Is that gonna be it?
What the fuck is plarntain?
It’s like a banana.
You can’t buy that in here, he says. You have to go to the Indian grocer down there. Pick the ripest ones.
There is an uncomfortable pause before one of them says thanks. They continue to shop in silence. He switches his Daunt Books tote bag to the other shoulder.
He needs a haircut.
He knows some people in Manchester.
The Eurostar ticket has tipped his current account into the no-more-lying-to-yourself zone. On the train, with the thawing French countryside rolling past his head, he rereads their WhatsApp conversations to reassure himself. In Lille, he watches a couple embracing on the platform and feels the powerful urge for a cigarette for the first time in weeks.
Later that afternoon, carrying his backpack and two holdalls down the escalator, he spots her standing under the red fluorescent sign for a sandwich shop, wearing a blue peacoat and a beautifully wide smile. He can’t shake the feeling that she should be waiting there for someone else.
You’re taller than I remember, she says.
I’ve actually got shorter.
The flat is on a corner, above a quiet intersection. Higher ceilings than any London flat he’s ever seen. Sunlight pours in through the tall single-pane windows and sweeps over her desk, sofa, bookshelves, record player, pot plants, coffee table, upright piano, drinks cabinet. From the balcony one can turn left to look down at a record shop, bakery, art gallery, the green glowing cross of an apotheek. In the other direction a long straight line of art nouveau apartment blocks. You can feel and hear the trams as they go past. This he particularly likes. The kitchen is small and there are two spare rooms. In one, when she has time, she paints with oils and develops photographs. The other spare room, apparently, is for guests and storage.
She works at the Commission, putting her expensive education and aptitude for languages to good use. Her job pays well, she laughs a lot, runs a few kilometres every day. Her friends live nearby. She is so fascinatingly happy. The raised notches on her thighs are from a long time ago.
He has unpacked his things in the spare room, there is no talk of when he will leave. They wander the Moroccan market together, drink sweet tea and eat Moroccan pancakes. They sip wine and beer on the terraces while the trees shed their blooms into the warm breeze. He meets her friends; Swedes, Germans, Danes, Irish. His French is already getting better. The Belgians, he finds, are generally kinder about embarrassing slip-ups than the French.
A corrosive sort of disbelief takes root. When they eat together, when he feels himself disappearing into her as the summer sun laughs through the windows and warms one side of their naked bodies. She does not seem to notice. She says I love you and he shakes his head in wonder and says it back. The hours between 1pm and 4pm are always the worst, no matter what.
He plays the piano but nothing comes to him. He summons the courage to send for the cheques, emailing his ex platitudes along with the Brussels address. Shockingly, a jiffy bag with her handwriting on the front lands on the doormat two weeks later. The cheques are stacked and held together with a rubber band and wrapped in a note that says I’m pregnant. Don’t give up.
He spends the afternoon walking the neighbourhood with the cheques in his pocket. They amount to more than he expected. He is able to repair some of the damage to his savings, continue with their ad-hoc financial arrangement. This, the thinks, will buy him time, although he is not sure what the time is for.
He has moved most of his things from the spare room and folded them into the rest of the things in the flat. For some reason he keeps his backpack near the bed.
Taking a circuitous route home from the coffee shop, he spots a trumpet in a second-hand shop for €90. The valves seem fine, the metal is in okay nick and he thinks why not?
He stands in the painting room and tries it out. His embouchure has weakened. He practises for five minutes before a furious knocking begins on the ceiling. He puts the thing down and goes into the living room. The sun is setting. She’ll be home soon.
One night, she is at a work-related drinks event until early the next morning. The next day, she is too hungover to move. He fetches her water, painkillers, strokes her head.
Thank you for being so sweet, she says unhappily.
He carries a Tupperware sloshing with her warm bile from the bedroom and flushes it down the toilet.
Later, they take a walk through the drifts of brown leaves and buy cheeseburgers.
It’s a humid night and eight of them are gathered around the dining table. In front of them is the remains of a roast chicken, cold vegetables, empty bottles. They are knocking back wine from small tumblers.
The woman next to him thinks that they are having a good-natured debate about music, but the truth is that he doesn’t like her and she is getting on his nerves. She is arguing against the political importance of hip-hop. They are both drunk, talking too loudly and for too long. She says that a certain politically-charged hip-hop album is average at best.
You just outed yourself, he says. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
I have been listening to this music for a very long time, she says. The smile is stale on her face.
Yeah. But for you it’s an affectation. And it’s more than that for some people.
You know, I’m tired of men thinking that I am some sort of faker posing as hip-hop lover just because I’m a girl.
A white girl?
The table quietens. He does not see the look of horror on his girlfriend’s face.
Does that matter?
It does when you have stupid opinions, yes.
Okay, well that is actually very racist, so you can add that to your casual sexism. She adds something in deliberately rapid Flemish and the Flemish speakers at the table shift in their seats unhappily.
He stands up, clears the plates, says goodnight and slams the door to the bedroom.
During the argument that follows, he can feel irreparable damage being done and yet he cannot stop. It does not help his position on this issue that she is black and he is mixed-race. Together they keep drilling, furiously, insanely attacking their own bond, competing to find the most fundamental weaknesses in their fragile new love.
I have never even heard you listen to hip-hop. You are a middle-class kid who happens to have a black parent. You made your money in a fucking indie band.
You are a European. A rich, detached European. You had a responsibility to back me up in there, not to me, but to—
How many black friends do you have?
That is not the point.
It is the point.
You don’t know me at all, he says. You don’t know me at all. And for some reason he dives into his backpack and produces the bracket of pills. He waves them at her face, knowing how stupid he looks even through his drunkenness and his rage.
She laughs. Not a mean laugh. What the fuck are you doing?
He is crying now. I don’t know, he says. What the fuck am I doing?