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The DJ is a lover of voice notes. In the two days since they started talking, he must have sent her at least fifty, each one longer than the last. He rambles, tells her all the intricacies of his day. He’s currently in a five-star hotel in Montenegro, at the hotel’s expense.
‘I can make you jealous with trays of hams and cheeses right now. But I won’t do that.’
Within five minutes, there’s another one.
‘I’m having a very Spinal Tap moment in the hotel. I’m lost. I went up some stairs and I’m like, I don’t recognise this, and I think I’ve found myself on the other side of the resort…’
He sends her pictures of the guy he’s working for, and the table where he eats his breakfast, and his feet in a bubble bath. He talks her through his journeys around the corridors of the hotel.
‘Ooh 2001, my room number, and also the vibe of Montenegro so far, I’d say.’
He says Montenegro in a weird accent, which she finds endearing. He has a bit of a lisp, and she finds this endearing too.
He quickly becomes a part of the texture of her day. It’s the kind of obsessive chatting she used to do with boys in school, when she still had to be mindful of not using up all her ten pound credit. Those innocent days when she’d have to sneakily borrow her mum’s Nokia, ending each message with the words, tb to my phone!
She wakes up worried. She dreamed that she had a conversation with her downstairs neighbour and he asked her, ‘How long are you planning to stay here?’ And she didn’t have an answer for him. She picks her phone up and tells the new boy via voice note about this dream, with her eyes still half-closed. The two blue ticks pop up within seconds.
On the third day, he sends her a voice note which says, ‘I feel if I don’t try to lock something down then we won’t meet up because – well, I DJ quite a lot, actually. I have a few residencies around town and I play Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And I also do radio once a month, and that’s Wednesday. So as you can see, along with the old nine to six with my day job… Long-winded question is I was wondering if you’d like to just keep it simple and meet up and go for a walk on Saturday, if you’re free? And if you’re not free, maybe I could work around what you’re doing. I thought I could walk you along the canal. Yeah, I’d really like that, so let me know if you’d like to do that. Cool.’
She texts her reply. I’m v flattered that you suggested a weekend date, but I’m up north this weekend, visiting my friend Kelly
It’s because I actually think I might like you. I just remembered, I get home early on Wednesday. You around 6/7?
Let’s try it. Shall we… not talk tomorrow? To keep this al fuego? Or am I talking nonsense?
I’m gonna talk to you if I feel like it
The day they’ve planned to meet up is hot. She checks the weather forecast on her phone and sees that it’s scheduled to be thirty-four degrees at six. This significantly limits her outfit options. He sends her a video of him on the plane which is bringing him back to London. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt, and thick black-rimmed glasses. There’s turbulence, and he pulls faces as he’s jiggled around. At the end of the video, he grins and she sees that he has a tiny gap between his two front teeth. This is the most excited she’s been to meet someone since the cyclist. She puts on a black vest and black shorts with a zip that runs up the middle. She’s ready an hour early. She has a small glass of cognac, and waits.
After their date, she types his DJ name into Google. It doesn’t take long to find his radio show. He told her his slot starts at ten. It’s nine forty-five. She makes tea, and gets herself comfortable. The quality of the link she’s found isn’t great, but soon enough, she hears his sweet little lisp, introducing his set. She grins. She’ll never tell him she did this. She probably won’t even tell Kelly.
‘This is not the best use of your time, is it?’ she whispers to herself.
Chaos show! he texts her. Pissed off!
It sounds alright to her.
Oh no! What happened?
Getting a beer and getting focused. Brb.
Within seconds, he sends her another text. Usually I can tell within about 2 mins if someone fancies me. With you, I was none the wiser after 90
This bothers her quite a lot. What did he expect? A love declaration after one date?
I bought two scratch cards earlier for our date, you know, he writes. It felt like a lucky day. But as I said, I didn’t really have much idea if you were feeling it or not.
Stop! she thinks. You’re spoiling it!
He calls her then, and they talk nonsense for an hour and a half. They arrange to meet for lunch the next day to continue their chat. Her eyes and face hurt after she hangs up.
She picks up lunch for them from a vegetarian place halfway between her house and his house. He leaves her waiting on his doorstep for too long, and she’s hot and on edge by the time he comes down for her. He gives her a big smile and looks her up and down with appreciation. In his room, he tries to give her a tenner, and she bats it away.
‘Aww! Your treat? That’s so nice. Thank you, how sweet.’ He’s overdoing it.
He lowers his face to look up into hers, and she turns away, suddenly shy. When he smiles, his eyes get very small behind his glasses.
His room is stuffy and smells like vinyl cleaner. He has one of those open wardrobe rails, and she can see lots of patterned shirts and jackets. He has a short-sleeved shirt on, which she usually can’t deal with. On him, it looks jaunty. Inexplicably, in this heat, he is also wearing socks, little oatmeal-coloured ankle ones. There is nowhere to sit except the edge of his unmade bed, so she perches there, and awaits instruction.
‘Cutlery?’ he asks.
‘I don’t really fancy eating hummus with my fingers.’
He laughs loudly and heads off to the kitchen.
She stands up and gives herself a tour of his bedroom. He has nice things. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is crammed with vinyls. My dad would’ve liked this, she thinks. There’s a postcard depicting Brighton on top of a set of drawers. She flips it over and then feels guilty and flips it back, without reading it. She can hear the DJ laughing with his housemates. She briefly contemplates going out to say hi, then immediately decides against it.
On his bed, she’s hungry, but wary of spilling hot sauce on his covers. She’s a little wary of being in his bedroom at all. They haven’t kissed yet and it’s hanging over them. He has made various jokes about it. He keeps making lingering eye contact or touching her bare arms for no reason.
Let’s get it out the bloody way, she thinks.
She puts the box of food down on a swivel chair next to his desk and feels him relax.
‘Lie down?’ he says.
It’s a tightly choreographed routine and she knows it well. She inches herself down into the crook he’s fashioned for her out of his body.
‘That’s better,’ he says.
Better than what? Finishing their lunch and finding a way to make contact naturally?
‘Mmm,’ she says.
She is stiff. He’s closed his eyes.
‘You’re more shy than I thought you’d be,’ he says. ‘It’s cute.’
What he’s really saying is, How come you’re not instantly champing at the bit at the prospect of a lunchtime quickie with me, when we’ve had all these days and days of false intimacy over text?
‘It takes me a minute,’ she says.
He has his hands laced across her stomach and inches one under the fabric of her top, murmuring a little as he touches skin.
Her head is positioned at a weird angle and is all she can think about. She’s not crazy about lying flat on his bed at one thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. He’s told her he has less than an hour before he has to get back to work.
‘I like that,’ she says, pointing to a framed print above the chest of drawers.
‘I like this,’ he says, his finger stroking her silver belly ring. ‘Retro.’
She laughs. ‘I know, I’m so tacky. I got it when I was sixteen.’
‘It’s cute.’ He nuzzles his face into the fold of her neck.
She sits up, leaning on one elbow. He copies her. They look at each other. He closes his eyes again and inhales. She will not make the first move. He lifts his free hand and caresses her cheek with the back of his fingers.
‘So soft,’ he breathes.
‘Aren’t most faces soft?’
‘Yours feels like velvet.’
This comparison reminds her of when her high school boyfriend described his feelings for her as ‘his heart being wrapped in velvet.’ She was confused then and she’s confused now. Velvet doesn’t even feel nice.
‘I’ve been dying to…’ the DJ says, leaning in and grazing her lips with his ‘… do this.’
The next day, after work, the DJ asks to meet her in Hackney Downs. He says he’s picked up ‘fancy’ apple juice and crisps. She ties her hair at the nape of her neck and puts on her coral lipstick. The sun has given her cheeks a reddish tint, which looks quite attractive in some lights, and quite terrible in others. She knows he’ll say nice stuff to her regardless of what she looks like.
Wearing some questionable blue shorts, he texts. Was gonna change out of them and then thought ‘she can take me as I am!’
She spots him from about ten metres away. He is half-lying against a tree, legs crossed, ankle to knee. He is doing that thing that she often does herself: making a conscious effort to look unselfconscious. The blue shorts are less of a problem than the fact that he is wearing trainers in the exact same shade of blue. She can see the shape of his bunions through the material of his shoes.
‘Hello knees,’ she says, leaning down to give him as much of a hug as she can manage.
‘Do you hate them?’
‘Not at all. You look very jaunty.’
‘Eee. Not the look I was going for…’
She plonks down next to him and helps herself to a handful of crisps from the open bag.
‘Nice to see you waited for me,’ she says.
‘I didn’t.’ He does an exaggerated wink.
He looks completely different today. She misses his smart Acne joggers. He lifts his leg and uses it to surround her, then pulls her over so that she is leaning on him. She’s trying to convince herself that she’s not giving him a fair chance and that he has more qualities than she’s giving him credit for. She’s not willing to admit their incompatibility yet. Before they met, it was increasingly intense and exciting and she’s waiting to see any evidence of this in the actual real person draped all over her right now.
‘So, are you down for getting some food?’ he says, tickling the inside of her elbow.
‘Always down for getting some food.’
‘I was thinking… souvlaki.’
He says souvlaki in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him – the same way he pronounces Montenegro – and it makes her not want to eat souvlaki with him.
‘Sure,’ she says.
‘You don’t want souvlaki, do you? I can tell.’
‘No, I do. That sounds great.’
‘There’s this place in Homerton which just opened. It’s meant to be amazing.’
‘You can’t argue with amazing.’
They meander over to the souvlaki place, which is imaginatively named Souvlakiland. On the way, he stops to buy a beer from the corner shop. While he drinks it, he says, more than once, ‘I’m really enjoying this beer.’
At Souvlakiland, they order three wraps: two chicken, and one spare pork one, which he assures her he will eat in the morning. He pays, and says, ‘You’re very welcome,’ when she thanks him.
The food is truly excellent. The meat is salty and hot and the tzatziki sauce is fresh and tangy on the warm pitta. She digs in with pure abandon. As they walk and eat, she almost forgets he’s there. Every time she gets the extra surprise of a crunchy chip, she is thrilled. She looks behind her to see him struggling to fit his mouth around the generous wrap. He looks cute under the streetlights and she feels playful now that her belly is on the way to being full.
They run into someone he knows a few feet from his house. A short boy with long, dark hair and a tank top. The DJ doesn’t introduce her, and she stands awkwardly while the two men talk. They do a weird handshake when they say bye.
‘Who was that?’ she asks, softly.
‘My old housemate. I hate him.’
They are standing on the DJ’s doorstep now. He leans against the door, and tells her the ins and outs of why he hates the man they just ran into so much. It’s a long story, and she doesn’t really care about hearing it. Why can’t you tell me this inside?
He hasn’t reached for his key and his body language is all off. Realisation hits. She’s not going to be invited inside. For whatever reason, he’s decided the night is over. Her time is up. It’s not even eight yet. She doesn’t have any other plans.
‘Well,’ he says, at a natural pause in the narrative. ‘I’d better go and sort my records for tomorrow.’
She rocks back on the balls of her feet and says, ‘Kay. Night.’
They don’t hug, and they certainly don’t kiss. As she walks herself home, she pulls faces into the night air.
‘Morning!’ A voice note from the DJ sent at 7:30am. ‘Thanks for coming to Souvlakiland with me, what a Friday highlight! I think you’re a little babe, and you make me laugh, but I don’t think we have enough common interests to keep this fire burning. Good luck with the writing. I don’t need to read your book to know you have talent, so please keep pushing your work, you will get there. Un bacio!’ He says un bacio in a strange accent which doesn’t belong to him.
Souvlakiland is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.