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The first few times she hangs out with Ryan, they make constant excuses to stay together a little longer. For their second date, he invites her to a party at his flat. She meets all his friends, stays over, and in the morning he leaves her to do her correspondence – by which he means call her mum – while he goes out to buy breakfast supplies for them both. He doesn’t ask her whether she’s staying for breakfast, he asks her what type of milk she likes best. His humming in the kitchen quickly leads to the scent of freshly ground coffee, and the clatter of various pans signals that she’ll be getting something far more exciting than the toast and Lurpak she usually offers her own guests.
Should I go out there? she texts Kelly. I’m not sure I want to chat to his housemates in this state…
Just go! It’ll be fine! They’ll be rough too!
She braces herself, and makes her way into the kitchen, wearing last night’s clothes. Ryan’s housemate and his girlfriend are doing the dishes, and Ryan is hunched over a steaming pan of eggs and tomatoes. He throws torn coriander into the concoction, and turns to offer her a huge grin.
In front of the others, he leans down and plants a kiss on her forehead. He’s sweaty and the contact leaves a light sheen on her face. She watches as he plates up two enormous portions of huevos rancheros and pours her a short coffee.
‘Come on,’ he says, nodding towards the door. ‘Let’s sit at the table.’
They go back to bed after that, stay there long enough for cabin fever to kick in. He’s incredibly hungover, green at the gills, and she waits for him to say the words which will break the spell. All it’ll take is a nuanced Well and she’ll have to leave.
‘We should get out the house,’ he says, and she perks up at his assumption that whatever’s happening next will be a communal activity.
They get dressed slowly, lamenting the loss of bare skin. He takes her to the second-hand bookshop next to his house, and each of them touches the spines of tens of books without really registering what they are. They walk through Brockwell Park, clutching hands in the pocket of his puffer jacket. They only have about forty minutes before it gets dark, and again, she thinks that’ll mean the end.
‘Shall we walk into Brixton and get a drink?’ he says, instead.
One drink turns to three, and then, tentatively, he suggests dinner. They share small plates of overly sweet, fried Brazilian fare in Brixton market, and, even as they say goodbye at the station, she’s thinking of how soon she can ask to see him again.
The radio of the man who lives downstairs has been blaring all day, every day for over a fortnight. Sometimes, at night, the only thing that calms her is picturing putting on thick, rubber-soled boots, and stamping on the floor until he makes a noise complaint of his own. She realises that this is not an okay thing to think. She doesn’t believe he used to have it this loud. She can’t say for sure. Her nerves are more frayed than usual, and now she’s tuned into it, it’s the only thing she can concentrate on. It’s the bass that bothers her the most, the buzz of it.
She has sent him a number of messages about his radio, ranging from the faintly comical, to the downright hysterical. There’s been a tiny improvement, but not nearly enough for her to relax completely.
Ryan sleeps over. They drink a bottle and a half of wine between them, then hold each other tightly, outside the covers, on her bed, content. He asks if they can switch the light off. It’s a Thursday night, there’s work in the morning, and he’s packed a spare pair of pants and a clean shirt.
She’d usually shower before getting under the sheets, but she’s drunk and she’s happy and she can’t be bothered. He rolls away from her, and she doesn’t mind.
As Ryan’s breathing gets heavier, she feels the slam of the front door downstairs, and her body tenses. The buzz begins almost immediately and her jaw tightens, teeth clenching. Her bones vibrate. Ryan stirs and reaches for her.
‘Come here,’ he says. ‘Try to ignore it.’
She rolls into his arms and pushes her left ear into his hairy chest. She knows it won’t be long until Ryan falls asleep, and then she’ll be left alone with her murderous thoughts.
‘I don’t understand how it doesn’t register with him,’ she mutters. ‘He’s honestly making me miserable.’
Miserable is a big word, and the worst bit is that she means it. The noise has begun to affect her quality of life. Every time she comes home, she checks the forecourt to see if her neighbour’s car is there; every time she pushes through her own front door, she’s on pins, anxious to see if the radio’s on or not. The other day, she found herself with her face to the carpet, listening through her floor and his ceiling to see if she could work out which show he was listening to. She’s losing her mind.
‘Now I don’t know,’ she says, in her normal voice, ‘whether it really is too loud, or if I just hate him.’
‘Okay,’ Ryan says. ‘That’s not helpful, is it?’
She breathes in. ‘Objectively, this is too loud, isn’t it? This is excessive, right?’
‘Yeah, he’s completely out of order,’ Ryan says. ‘Do you want me to go down? I will.’
She contemplates this idea. Would she like that?
‘I don’t think so,’ she says.
‘Try to zone it out for tonight, then send him a message in the morning.’
‘It’s all I can hear!’ Her tone has changed and she knows tears aren’t far off.
It’s much too early in this fledgling romance for her to cry in front of Ryan. But her heart sinks and keeps sinking. Her breathing’s shallow and she has to remind herself: in, two, three, four, out, two, three, four. Ryan shows her how. She copies him. She will never again take for granted the ease with which she normally breathes. It’s not the start of a premature hangover. This month is a blue time. A black time. It is insidious, and will not be ignored. Always around the midway point. She pushes the thought down. It’s not the money she wishes she had more of, it’s not the increasingly sinister TV shows she’s been bingeing on. It’s not the disappointment of a potential agent losing interest. It’s not the longer nights, the sun setting at 4:30pm.
‘I’ve been feeling super anxious all week,’ she says quietly. ‘For no reason.’
But the reason has a name, she thinks. And that thought makes her feel like she can breathe again after all.
‘Silv, just try to relax.’
‘Yes. Thank you.’
‘No, I mean… My mum struggles with sleep and she always told me when I was little that the important thing is to have a rest. If you fall asleep, so much the better, but the main aim is to relax. Do you know what I do?’
‘I’ll take you on my pedalo,’ he whispers, and strokes a strand of her hair. ‘Are you ready?’
She nods into his armpit.
‘Okay, so we’re in the centre of a huge lake. It’s a balmy evening. You can hear the rustle of the breeze through the trees.’
‘All I can hear is Radio Four.’
‘Come on, try.’
She lifts her face for a kiss.
‘You’re doing really well,’ he says.
‘You are. So the waves are lapping against the side of the pedalo. I’m doing all the work. You’re sunning yourself -’
‘I thought it was evening?’
‘It’s mid-afternoon, I got confused.’
‘Okay.’ She shifts her body to better fit around his.
He talks for tens of minutes, his voice getting lazier and quieter as the disembodied voices from downstairs drone on and on. When the voices stop, it takes her ears a few seconds to adjust. She dare not hope. She’s been tricked this way before.
‘See? It’s off,’ Ryan says, sleepily. ‘You did so well.’
‘Shhh, shh,’ she says. ‘Don’t jinx it.’
They spend two nights in a row together – he comes straight back to hers after work on the Friday to check how she’s doing. He brings her a Twix, offering it up to her eagerly as soon as she opens the door. This childish gift brings her immeasurable joy, and when Ryan picks her up in a fireman’s lift, she lets him carry her up to her floor, giggling the whole way.
When they wake up together on the Saturday morning, he’s adamant that he needs to seize the day, buy a stepladder from Homebase and get up to his attic. She, on the other hand, has no real purpose for her day, hasn’t scheduled anything with any of her friends and feels instantly lost.
He’s dressed when she comes out of the bathroom.
‘You’re ready?’ she asks.
Let him go, be cool, let him go.
‘I feel a bit sad,’ she says instead, throwing herself onto the bed.
‘Oh no, why?’
She lifts her shoulders up and down.
‘Do you want to come and help me with the ladder?’ he asks.
She shrugs again. ‘Maybe,’ she says, laughing a bit, careful not to sound too keen. ‘Or I’ll do some writing. Or go book shopping. Or clean the flat. Just spitballing here.’
He’s putting yesterday’s socks into his backpack, zipping it up. She’s still in her bathrobe. She rolls over onto her front and breathes out, heavily. The air is stagnant in the room and she can’t find the energy to stand up, walk over to the window, and open it, even though she knows that it’ll make her feel instantly better.
‘Will you open the window for a minute?’ she asks him.
She watches as he crosses the room in two strides and, with one smooth movement, lets the cold air flood in.
‘Look at those arms,’ she says, still not moving.
‘Come on, Silv. I think it’ll help if you move.’
‘I will,’ she says, face in the pillow, ‘eventually.’
He is leaning down now, next to the bed. ‘Come with me,’ he breathes into her ear, ‘I’ll buy you lunch. Then we can go back to mine and have a read. I’ll open that whisky my sister got me for Christmas.’
‘Really? That sounds nice.’
‘Really.’ She is cheery on the bus to Finsbury Park, content to be sitting next to him, for them to have the same goals for the afternoon. Fleetingly, entirely without her consent, her brain says, I love him. She ignores her brain, and squeezes Ryan’s hand.
Radio Four is taken from Mate, the dating memoir that Silvia Saunders is currently working on.