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She can see his shaved head through the middle of the bar. She’s on one side, he’s on the other. He catches her eye and waves his fingers at her. She grins, pleased that he’s recognised her, and waves back. He meets her in the doorway between the two rooms. He’s holding a lead. He’s brought a dog. His dog, presumably. He’s not anywhere near as attractive as his pictures had led her to believe. She thinks, You don’t look 6’5.
He envelopes her in a big hug, plants a wet kiss somewhere near her cheek.
‘What are you having?’ he asks.
‘Wine, please. White.’
He’s served fast, probably a benefit of being the first person the bartender can see. He hands her her drink and they dither about where to sit for a few seconds.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’ she says, looking down at the black and grey dog sitting obediently between his feet.
‘This is Lucille,’ he says.
She bends down and scratches her ears. The dog looks sleepy, has big muddy eyes, and is a sweetie. She heaves herself up onto one of the tall stools around the table they’ve chosen, while he slots himself onto his effortlessly.
‘So,’ she says. ‘Hi.’
He proffers a meaty fist, and she looks at it.
‘Give me some skin,’ he says.
She obeys. ‘I was with someone this afternoon who knows you.’
He keeps his eyes trained to the wall next to them. ‘Oh yeah? This’ll be good. Where do they know me from?’
‘Did I used to sell them drugs, by any chance?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Usually doesn’t come up until at least twenty minutes into a date, but might as well fill you in now.’
He has a flesh-coloured mole on the side of his nose, and the angle of his face means she can’t take her eyes off it.
‘Yeah, I dealt for five years. Was really good at it. Made a fortune.’
‘So you’re an entrepreneur, essentially?’
‘I am. It was a good life, I can’t lie. When you do something like that, you’re on the fringes of society, out of the real world, and I loved that.’
She murmurs to show that she wants him to continue.
‘And I was happy to be outside of the real world. But then I fell in love, and thought…’
‘You’d quite like to be back in the real world, after all?’
‘Exactly. God, heavy this, for a first date.’
She looks under the table. ‘She’s so good, I forgot she was even there.’
‘She’s the best.’ He leans right down and rubs his big hand over the dog’s face.
His trainers are huge. When they were messaging, he told her his shoe size was a sixteen. That’s almost three times bigger than hers. As the dog laps at water in a bowl, she takes a sip of her wine.
‘Do you have siblings?’
He whistles through his teeth. ‘Yeah. A few.’
‘How many’s a few?’
‘Not sure. My dad was a busy man back in the day.’
She laughs, loudly.
He laughs too. ‘How much of a red flag is all this? Are you completely put off?’
‘Not at all.’ She flicks her hand back, dismissing the idea. ‘This is fun.’
‘Good, I’m glad.’ He turns his face to her, holds eye contact for a few beats. ‘What about you? Siblings?’
‘None. It’s just me.’
‘Wow. And what was it like growing up in the midlands?’
‘More or less how you’d imagine. Safe, dull, fine.’ She pauses. ‘Aw that’s sly, I like my hometown. I had a lovely childhood.’
‘And then you came here?’
‘With some stop-offs along the way. I lived in France for a while.’
‘Oh yeah? Do you speak the language?’
She nods. ‘It’s a bit rusty, but it comes back when I need it.’
‘I love Italy. All mental, aren’t they?’
‘Completely. My favourite thing is the old men. They take these plastic garden chairs, and put them in front of their houses, and just sit. Sit and watch. But sometimes their houses are in cul-de-sacs or whatever, and they have to wait for half an hour to see another person. And the person will go by, and they’ll both say buonasera and then the old man will just go back to staring into space until the next person comes by.’
‘We do a lot of work in Rome, and they have these outrageous requests. They’ll say, Eh we need a tiger. So we’ll sort it out for them, and then they’ll go, The tiger needs to be loose. And we’ll explain the dangers of that and why it’s not possible, and they go, Is okay, is okay. So we’ll do the shoot, and it’ll come time to pay, and they’re like, £100, is okay?’
She sputters into her glass.
For their second drink, talk turns to literature. He says he doesn’t read nearly as much as he used to. He worked in publishing after his drug dealing days were over, comes from a long line of writers and literary agents. He wrote poetry for a while, until he got sick of people assuming he was overemotional or depressed.
‘Who do you like?’ he asks.
As she’s planning her answer, she feels Lucille nuzzle her ankle. She tells him who her favourite writer of all time is, and he gives her a sly smile.
‘I used to sell her coke once a year, on New Year’s Eve.’
‘Yes. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in real life. Present company excluded.’
‘That’s one person I’m happy to fall short of.’
She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Once there, she feels no need to text any of her friends, not even Kelly. While she’s sitting on the toilet, he texts her two book recommendations.
‘I like talking to you about books,’ he says, when she rejoins him.
She sort of hears him, but sort of wants to hear him say it again. ‘What?’
‘I like talking to you about books.’
‘I could do this forever. It’s my best.’
He’s relaxed into himself now, she can tell. He’s meeting her eye more, cracking more jokes.
‘Another?’ he asks, pointing to her half-empty glass. His own is almost finished.
‘I’ll nurse this for a bit longer. I haven’t eaten, I’ll be pissed.’
‘Some bar snacks then? Crisps? Pork scratchings?’
She shakes her head, grins. ‘I’m good.’
While he’s at the bar, Lucille jumps up at two women at the table next to theirs. The women lose their minds over her. She really is a lovely little dog.
‘Do you wanna eat?’ he asks once he’s back. ‘We could go somewhere.’
‘I’ll be okay. I have reserves.’
He peers down at her, unconvinced. ‘Where?’
‘You know, you don’t seem like you’re five three.’
‘Well I am.’
‘Stand up, let’s see how small you really are.’
So they’re playing this game. She does as she’s told, and he stands up too.
‘Are you wearing heels?’
She lifts her foot, shakes her flat boot at him. They both sit back down. The dog is confused and sniffs her owner’s shoe.
‘You have a tall face,’ he tells her.
‘It’s elegant. You have a very elegant face.’
‘I don’t think anybody’s ever called me elegant before.’
She waits for him to expand, but he doesn’t.
‘Come and see my house,’ he says, forgetting to put a question mark in his voice.
She’s in control of her faculties and hasn’t decided, even at this late point in the evening, if she’s attracted to him. All she’s sure of is that she would like to hang out a little longer.
The flat is only a few streets away, which was clearly part of his reasoning behind picking that particular nondescript pub. The block is ex-council, unexciting from the outside. Lucille leads the way up six flights of stairs.
‘I don’t know which one it is.’
‘Here.’ He puts his key into a red door and opens it onto a scene of mild destruction.
The floorboards are bare, but not in the chic, sanded-down, varnished way she admires in other peoples’ Victorian conversions. In the threat-of-splinters way. He leads her past the kitchen. She cranes her neck to peer inside and says, ‘Nice.’ It’s a pretty standard kitchen: a bit messy, personality-less, beige appliances, a plastic cereal box brimming over with dog biscuits, Lino on the floor, curling in the corners. The front room is where he’s headed, and there’s not a lot she can say about this either. The walls are beyond bare. They’ve been dug away. The wiring is on display, and inexplicably, he has hung one solitary painting in the middle of it all. It’s the face of a very unattractive man, done naively.
‘Who’s that?’ She nods at it.
‘This musician I made a film about.’
He doesn’t want to talk now, she can sense that much. He has placed his beefy hands on her hips and is doing a slinky thing with his own hips to close the distance between them.
‘Let me kiss you,’ he says, as he’s already leaning down.
She’s slightly concerned about all that beard, worries it’ll be coarse, uncomfortable, will leave her with stubble rash in the morning. It was difficult to tell in the dingy pub, but she’s aware now that his mouth, like the rest of him, is oversized. Cushiony. His tongue darts around hers and he pulls her closer.
She disentangles herself to look up and say, ‘Let me see the rest, then.’
Lucille runs up the stairs first, and they both follow her. There are two rooms, one filled almost entirely with cardboard boxes full of books, the other the one he clearly sleeps in. In his bedroom, he sits on the edge of the bed.
Here we go, she thinks.
He pats the spot next to him. ‘Sit down.’
He hasn’t left her much room.
He points at his lap, and she slides onto one of his legs, which is practically the same width as the whole of her. She fits neatly in the space between his thighs. He kisses her with intention, and she finds herself suddenly hyperaware that she is in a complete stranger’s flat, locked in, and that most of their interaction thus far has revolved around him stating in various ways how much more of him there is than of her, and her responding by echoing that yes, she is very little, and he is gigantic. She places a hand on the wide expanse of his chest and pushes gently.
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘You haven’t shown me the dining room yet.’
He laughs wistfully, her body still caught between his various limbs. ‘Do you wanna sleep here?’ he says. ‘We don’t have to fuck.’
She furrows her brow.
‘What? I can make us a cup of tea. I won’t try anything.’
Lucille is sniffing the rug next to their feet.
She doesn’t speak for a moment, then says, ‘I feel weird now. Why did you have to say it like that?’
‘I’m being honest. Let me put the kettle on, we’ll go downstairs.’
She doesn’t feel like she’s in any real danger. Lucille is a strange comfort in that respect. If the dog thinks he’s okay, he must be.
Back in the kitchen, he fusses with mugs and teabags, and she tells him she doesn’t want a cup of tea after all.
‘I mostly just wanted us to come back downstairs before you got too excited.’
‘Sure? I’m gonna have one.’
‘Positive. Thank you.’
He takes his cup of tea, and her, upstairs to his bedroom once more, and asks her if she’d like something to sleep in. This is a game she’s familiar with. It goes like this: the boy gives you a t-shirt, turns the other way while you put it on and get under the covers, and within seconds he’s taken the t-shirt off you, and you’re in your underwear in his bed. Still, she goes along with it, telling him not to look as she shrugs out of her own t-shirt and pulls his one over her head. It doesn’t smell particularly clean. It falls to just below her knees. She takes her trousers off, and leaves her socks on.
‘Okay, I’m decent,’ she says.
He removes his jeans, and, even though she’s already had them wrapped around her, she’s shocked by the sheer size of his bare legs. He leaves his jumper on and lifts the duvet to clamber in. The bed is only a double, the same size as hers at home. With a groan, she is lifted over his chest, and placed in a seated position on his stomach. She is self-conscious about there being a spectator. Lucille is still in the room. He scrunches the fabric of the t-shirt he’s given her all the way up to her neck, but doesn’t take it off.
‘Let me see you,’ he murmurs.
He has that manic, faraway look in his eyes that men get once they’re lying down, and she’s sad that there won’t be any more talk of books or childhoods or past adventures tonight. He rubs himself against her.
‘I really want to fuck you,’ he whispers, as though she can’t tell.
She looks down and sees flesh poking up from the window in his boxers, where he’s threaded himself through the gap. Apart from this cross section of skin, he’s still completely covered and she wonders whether he’s self-conscious about his body. But that’s part of this whole set-up, surely? The bigger, the better. The XXL t-shirt is whipped off her and thrown to the floor, and he gazes at her in her entirety again.
‘Your arms are so sexy,’ he says, rubbing his palms up and down them. ‘You’re minute. Look at your hands.’
Her hands aren’t especially small. She actually has pretty long fingers.
‘Do you like feeling big?’ she asks him.
‘Yeah,’ he breathes. ‘Do you like feeling small?’
She rolls her shoulders back, shrugging him off, then reaches down over the edge of the bed, feeling blindly for fabric, anything to redress the balance. It’s her own, familiar top she plucks from the floor and she’s grateful for this.
‘I should put this away, then?’ he says, nodding at his crotch.
‘I think so, yeah.’ He falls asleep quickly, then. She squeezes her eyes shut, breathes in hard and tries to pretend she’s in her own bed. He begins to snore, softly at first, then louder and louder. It’s a wet snore, a beer snore. It rattles around his mouth and catches, each time in a slightly different pattern so that it won’t ever settle into white noise. She sighs. He has one arm underneath her and it’s digging into her back. She extracts herself from him, turns the other way. He should still be trying to impress her, not lying exposed in this way, mouth hanging open, nostril hair vibrating with every exhalation. She lies there quietly while he makes an absurd amount of noise. At one point, he mutters, ‘Who’s got the pills?’ and she looks around in dismay. She elbows him. He snuffles, rolls over, and the snoring begins again. At the exact moment she decides to leave – no matter how long the journey home – a weight lands on her feet. Lucille hops over her legs, prancing along the bed to find a space big enough to house her. She wriggles her little dog bum down and sinks precisely into the curve between the two human bodies.
Lucille and her Owner is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.