I groan, rapping a loose knuckle
against the heavy double-glazed door of my local McDonald’s. Trying the door
once more – it doesn’t give – a familiar anxiety creeps up, leaping into
piggyback position, without permission. When, earlier that evening, the doctor,
a smug man with handlebar moustache touched his fingers to his naked chin in a
light, affectionate gesture and asked, ‘but how do we cure loneliness?’, and
with no answer forthcoming, nothing but mild, undeserved awe, had shrugged and
smiled at the woman I had been following around the impromptu party, her body
shifting but a fraction; still, this placing a chasmal difference in our
non-existent potential, I should’ve come back with a quick quip, sharp as a
whip from the hand of a matador cracking against a bull’s buttock. Something
like-oh, I don’t know, but something.
I knock at the glass once more. A
short woman appears, standing at a distance. We watch each other for a moment.
I knock again. She takes the few steps towards me, and when close enough, I
‘I would like some nuggets.’
She points at the sign displaying
opening times, like the glass is soundproof. Indoors, I can hear the sweet
arias of Beethoven the company deployed as an anti-yob tactic, some genius from
marketing deciding that the Moonlight Sonata could prevent a riot.
‘I would like some nuggets,’ I
repeat. She points to the sign once more. This branch isn’t open until 5 AM.
‘I will pay you,’ I open my wallet
and take out the first note, squinting at the coloured face of Queen Elizabeth
in the darkness, ’20 pounds for 20 McNuggets. You can keep the change.’
The woman doesn’t say anything, so I
slip the note under the door, wobbling a little as I rise. She bends at the
hip, her hand against the small of her back, and sweeping back strands of
blonde hair which have strayed from the safety of her hairnet, picks up the
money, holds it to the light and pockets it. She turns around, and waddles
I check my wrist. It’s naked. I took
my watch off earlier, before falling asleep cuddling a stranger in the spare
bedroom. She was not the woman I had been following around all evening, who, at
midnight, made her excuses – something about work in the morning – and left the
party. The glass door unlocks automatically. I walk in.
A child, barely out of the perils of
his teenager years, is behind the desk, his hands drumming the counter
arrhythmically, the fear he might have to interact with me manifesting.
‘Excuse me, could you get the short
blonde lady who works here for me? Like yay high?’ I ask, illustrating with a
flat palm to my breastbone.
‘Oh, Sandra? She’s on cleaning duty.
I’ll go get her.’
Behind the counter, the fat fryer
sputters and spits, as staff prepare the rations for the drunk, the wanderers,
the early birds, the habituals. The young man returns, more fidgety than
‘Erm, she’s not here.’ A pregnant,
dishonest pause. ‘She’s gone home.’
A disembodied hand slides hash browns
and McMuffins onto the relevant shelves, ready to serve. Near the bottom of the
set of shelves lies a greasy box of nuggets, the last box.
‘Do you have a no chase policy?’
‘Er…we don’t have security here.’
‘Oh, ok. Cool.
I consider leveraging myself over the
desk, which, would make for a better story and more entertaining CCTV footage,
but I’ve been drinking. That would be dangerous. I wander around the side gate,
pluck the Nuggets from their resting place, consider a box of fries, leave the
box of fries because I’m not greedy, just trying to stave off the surety of a
hangover, and, high-fiving the nonplussed young man, I walk out.
Outside, the sun is ignoring its
alarm, blues and pinks and purples but the orange corona nowhere to be seen. A
fox scampers along near me, not unlike a dog at feeding time. I chuck him – or
her – a nugget, which they chomp on.
‘Listen,’ I say, between mouthfuls,
‘I’ve always believed in the fundamental goodness of humans, but everyone does
things for a reason, you know? One which is justified to them. Whatever, you
probably don’t care anyway.’
‘So why’d you give me the nugget?’
The fox asks silently.
‘You looked hungry.’
‘Altruism feeding your static ego.’
He bobs his head in a nod, and darts away in the darkness.
In the morning, I try to massage the
hangover from my body with codeine and a skin-wrinkling shower. It’s Friday,
and still too early to order a takeaway. I type a message to my best friend, in
capitals, saying, ‘I WANT TO DIE.’ His response is equally melodramatic: ‘I’M
WAITING FOR THE REAPER TO COLLECT ME.’ I email work, citing stress induced
flu-like symptoms as my reason for not coming in on time, or at all. My flatmate isn’t home, so I dance around the
house naked, to ‘a-ha’s’ Take on Me, until even this liberation,
combined with the nausea, is overwhelming, retiring to bed.
I toss about in the duvet, unable to
find any position in which my body isn’t pulsating, my heart working overtime
to pump out every toxin I’ve dashed through my mouth. I make the executive
decision to masturbate. Queuing up visual memories, I am a child once more,
approaching the desk at Blockbuster with an armful of videos, intent on a
marathon. Like then, I’m told I can only have one, and reward whichever cruel
adult has delivered this sentence with hot, fresh salty tears. After I finish,
I wipe my eyes and fall asleep. Five minutes later, I’m woken by a hypnic jerk,
a swooping around my navel, my heart thudding harder. I check my wrist. It’s
still naked. The time on my phone tells me I could pre-order from the Indian
around the corner. Loading up some unpolitically correct sitcom from the 90s, I
spend far too long deliberating over my few choices, when I know what I want.
When it arrives, I call immediately
and explain my food is colder than the chest freezer from which the produce was
taken from. They extend their sincerest apologies and promise to refund me.
Instead, they email a colourful, badly designed coupon for the equivalent of my
next meal. We all know the deal here, this isn’t our first rodeo. The coupon
Whilst eating, I scroll through my
contacts at random. Spilling a daal off the edge of my naan bread onto my
pillow, I type a message to a friend I haven’t spoken to for a few months,
asking if he wants to get a drink tonight to catch up. My phone pings as soon
as I put it down. It is the girl from last night, the stranger I shared a bed
with, saying, ‘I’ve got your watch. Let’s get a drink, I can give it back to
you?’ I ignore her. I wonder if she is still a stranger if I shared a bed with
her. Probably. When I’ve finished my meal, I upload an image to Instagram,
describing the semi-urgent nature of my impending doom, both for the sake of my
employers, who I know keep tabs, and to let the world know what I’m doing. This
is the best, or one of the best times to upload, catching the ennui of
lunchtime, maximising interaction. Most of my life revolves around filling
time, until the next ‘certainty’ arrives. In this way, I’m sure when death does
arrive, I’ll be ok, I think.
Monday, I call in sick again. I’ve
run out of paid sick days, so my manager suggests I take a few days off as
holiday, which I do. I decide to feed my body, mind and soul, and head to an
It’s a muggy, nasty sort of day,
sweat pooling in pits and orifices of all kinds. The sun is still hiding. I
walk past the Tate Modern several times – the last time I visited, my best
friend and I were chased out by security, after failing to control a bout of
the giggles at the number of blank canvas’ the gallery was exhibiting. Still,
the potent cocktail of laziness and convenience entices me towards the
The guy welcoming people, despite my
best efforts, catches my eye, holding my gaze with a fierce, determined glare.
‘What would be lovely, is if you
could donate £5 to the Tate Galleries. We are a charity so rely solely on
donations to ensure the smooth running of the organisation.’ He gestures
towards a short black pillar sprouting from the ground, and as he does so, a
screen lights up on it, with a payment due for £5. ‘All you have to do is tap.’
I reach into my pocket and tap my bank card against the screen, before I can
even question him, or myself.
‘Thank you, your contribution will
keep the Tate open.’ As I walk away, I hear him feeding the same lines to
Avoiding the gallery spaces, I make
for the enormous foyer, divided in two from where a deceptive carpeted ramp
starts. On one side, on flat ground, a range of oversized swing sets; here,
adults pretend they are only playing children in this sole moment. Above the
ramp, the main attraction: a huge silver ball, swinging back and forth on an
adjustable axis. Cut into the ceiling, a tiny square of blue in the sky,
somehow only visible from indoors. From the ground it’s like being a cat
trapped in a well, a rope swinging teasingly just out of reach, this made all
the worse by the fact a cat couldn’t grip a rope.
A few steps away, a girl holds a pair
of black balloons. She’s trying to take a selfie; the dexterity of her wrists
letting her down, she drops her phone; in the futile attempt she makes to catch
the device with her foot, her grip loosens on the trailing ribbons, and the
balloons drift silently towards the high ceiling. She watches me watching her
for a moment, then we both gaze upwards towards the floating objects. No one
else appears to notice. She puts her fingers to her lips. I shrug and lie on
the carpet. Knowing my best friend works close by, one of those flexible jobs
which he would be hard pushed to describe what he actually does, I
message him about the ball before its hypnotic nature lulls me away.
When he arrives, he says, lying next
to me, ‘You weren’t lying. Do you want a cookie? White chocolate and macadamia
nut. They went down a treat in the office.’
‘Nice.’ I take one from the
Tupperware he’s holding out. ‘How’s work?’
‘Oh, you know. It’s… you know.’
We watch the ball creak across our
vision, back and forth, back and forth.
‘Do you remember that video we saw
here last time? The guy pouring oil on sugar cubes.’
‘That was hilarious.’
‘Yeah, so funny. But it wasn’t.’
‘I get what you mean.’
‘What did it mean? Wasn’t it
something about the beginning and ending and order and chaos losing their
‘Something like that.’
He sits up and takes out another
‘You’ve got new socks on.’
‘They make me feel good.’
‘You still feeling bad?’
‘Hmm. You been dating anyone
‘No. But that’s not going to solve
the problem. I’ve still got to be a person, even with another person.’
‘I need the toilet.’
In the cubicle, I cry some and listen
to Take on Me to cheer me up. I call my mother as I walk back to my best
friend, still sniffling and a little tender.
‘I’ve got this weird feeling of
homelessness,’ I tell her. ‘I feel alone a lot of the time.’
‘It must be the devil.’
‘Are you quoting that poet?’
‘You should come to church on
‘We’ve had this discussion, Mum. I’m
not coming to Church anymore.’
‘So you say you’re lonely, there’s
plenty of people to speak to at Church and you don’t want to come? Ah! What’s
‘I’m not lonely, I feel alone. I
don’t think that’s going to solve my problems.’
‘What do you want me to say to you?
You’re a twenty-eight year old man. Get on with your life.’
I request some more holiday from
work, citing the special circumstances of emotional burnout and a potential
oncoming breakdown. It is approved immediately, in what I believe is an active
effort to reduce a PR disaster.
order too much food from KFC – I was unaware they delivered, and excitement
gets the better of me. The bill comes to £89. When the food arrives, I punch a
message into the delivery service website, saying the chicken was pink in the
middle. A robot sends a joyful message back, explaining that I won’t be charged
if the food is unfit for consumption.
I take a photo of the pile of food,
and post it to Instagram. It’s a little late to catch the flurry of lunchtime
activity, but I still get a little bit of action. I click on the list of people
who have liked the post. A person I don’t know in real life, or follow on
Instagram, has pushed the little red heart. I click on her profile. Similar
age. We have some mutual friends. Not my type, but the more I think about it, I
don’t really have a type. I accidentally double tap on one of her photos, the
red heart appearing to alert me to what I have done. Fuck it, I think, liking
four other photos. My phone pings shortly. She’s done the same on my profile.
Just incase, I like one more, from several months ago, a black and white
portrait, half her face in profile, illuminated by a stray block of sunlight.
Hmmm. I pace the room, wondering what
my next move is. I scroll through her virtual life for clues. A few scraps of
poetry litter her captions, so I post a quote from Audre Lorde.
She replies in my private messages
with a large red heart. I dance about the room.
Over the following week, we send each
other funny memes and videos at all hours. My heart gyrates for the next
faintly amusing photo joke every time I am away from my device.
On the weekend, I find myself at my
best friend’s son’s third birthday party. I pick him up, lift him towards the
ceiling, making abstract sounds the child grew out of a year ago, spin him
round, then settle in the sofa closest to the wi-fi router. I pause briefly,
when steaming hot plates of rice and chicken are delivered to the partygoers,
before realising my thigh is thick enough to balance the plate on, digging with
a fork with one hand, continuing to tap at my phone’s glass screen with the
‘Who are you talking to?’ My best
friend’s wife asks.
‘His new lady friend,’ my best friend
‘Oooh, when can we meet her?’
‘Soon.’ On impulse, I say, in our
long running message thread, ‘Marry me.’
‘Why do you want to marry me?’
‘You make me less lonely.’
‘I’m not a cure for your loneliness.’
‘Do I make you feel the same way
‘We should meet.’
‘That’s my Grandmother in that urn.’
‘Fuck,’ I say, almost dropping the
My Instagram belle doubles over in
laughter, clutching at her sides.
‘Ha. Good one,’ I say, placing the
urn back on the shelf.
‘I wasn’t joking. I just didn’t want
you to feel bad, at first.’
‘Right. I need the toilet.’
When I return, she’s whipping a
leopard print dressing gown over her nude figure. I catch a tiny glimpse of a
stray nipple, pink and pointy, and freeze.
‘Hey,’ she says, patting the bed. I
sit beside her, and she wraps her leg around my own, leaning into my lap,
‘You’re still wearing your clothes.’
I untangle myself and begin to
‘What do you wanna do?’
She smiles faintly, like no one has
ever asked her that question.
‘I would like to cuddle.’
‘Yeah. Cuddling is cool.’
She lies down, turning her back to me
and I traipse my arm around her body, tucking up to her. Her breathing deepens,
body slack, and soon she is asleep. I glance around her room, properly. She has
laid a patterned scarf atop her dull lamp, giving the illusion there is a
forest on the ceiling. Her hair smells like my childhood, like coconut oil and
warmth. Succulents and creepers line the shelves and furniture. Outside, a
street light buzzes but it’s so high pitched and infrequent, it could be a
cricket. This is cozy, comfortable. Cuddling is cool.
Two days later, it is Valentine’s
day. I message my new – well, I don’t know what she is to me, but I message her
anyhow, saying, ‘Let’s hang out tonight.’ Before she can reply, I pay
too much for a dozen red roses from a leering man wearing a tartan flat cap. He
is in the process of trying to sell me a small, dying olive tree, the branches
gnarled and dehydrated, when she calls.
‘Hey. What do you want to do
‘Erm. I’ve got a date.’
The silence hangs in my ears like an
echoing tinnitus. I’m unsure of what to say, what the protocol is here, so I
hang up and call my mother, asking to borrow her car.
‘What do you need it for?’
‘I’ve got a date.’
‘Ah fantastic! I hope you won’t be
drinking if you’re driving.’
‘I don’t drink, Mum,’ I lie. ‘Gave
up. For my health.’
Getting into the car, the first
whispers of rain graze my cheek. By the time I am bombing down a country lane,
listening to the acoustic version of Take on Me, which is infinitely
more heartbreaking, at the loudest volume my tiny ears will take, fat globules
of water are punching my windscreen. I speed past a strange, tall object. In my
rearview, I see the object shirk and shriek at the waterfall my tyres just
splashed on it. I do a U-turn and open the passenger door and the figure jumps
in, slamming the door.
‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’
‘WHY ARE YOU IN THE RAIN?’
‘OH. I NEED TO GET TO MY GIRLFRIENDS
I turn down the music, and begin to
‘Why are you in the rain?’
‘My car broke down.’
‘Bad timing, indeed.’
I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker, or
helped anyone in this manner, nor would I think I would. My parents always said
never to answer the door if not expecting anyone, or the phone if you I didn’t
recognise the number.
‘Here,’ I say, reaching towards the
back seat, thrusting the bouquet of love flowers in her direction. ‘For you.’
I expect a fuss, a squeal, maybe even
tears from the sodden stranger I picked up from the side of a country lane;
instead, a content smile, wistful, almost, and she says, ‘I wish all strangers
were as nice as you.’
We haven’t gone the length of a
single take of the song when she says, ‘if you could stop just here, that’d be
‘Wait – you don’t want to go any
‘No, I just needed to get to my
‘Oh, ok. Well.’
‘You’re a lifesaver, thank you!’
I let the engine purr, body and
vehicle static as my thoughts roam. I want to gun the throttle, spin the
wheels, making a tsunami-like wave, pulling away from this obscure country
road, which, with the apocalyptic rain and engulfing darkness, resembles a scene
from a horror film where my naivety leads to me perishing. But for now, I’m
content with my thoughts and an eerie radio silence.
Then I do something I haven’t done in
a while: I begin to pray. Strange incantations, asking for deliverance.
The radio turns on. A blur of static,
then the traffic report, delivered in dramatic fashion. Apparently, it’s
raining. They will be back with an update in 15 minutes, every 15 minutes.
Rather than switch back to the
nothingness, the radio remains on, promising the greatest hits from the 80s.
And of course, the most absurd impossibility: That electronic drum break. A
baseline played with such delicate beauty, like a plucking a feather from the
wing of an angel. Those synths, those glorious synths! Music is a gut language
and joy shoves aside whatever is swimming in my stomach. The vocals from Take
on Me (radio edit) usher into my ears. Another burst of static. As the joy
came, it leaves. A growl, like the monstrous feeling within me has just been
given a voice. Perhaps my mother is right. It must be the Devil.