Anna Maconochie: [Playing House]

They drank too much whenever he came round. Neither of them had an alcohol problem but she always felt the second, certainly the third bottle of wine was overdoing it. Until the drinking was just part of their routine. He was always the visitor, she the one opening the heavy front door. She was always alone when he came over. He didn’t invite her to his home and she didn’t suggest a visit. She had been there only once, the night they’d met at the party he had held with his housemates who were also young guys finishing their medical training. He was still young too but he’d come to it later than them. I have to work hard, he told her early on, I can’t fuck up again and her posture had tensed at this, realising he would be the one to decide their time together.

She was between homes when she met him, having sold her flat too quickly. She’d chanced it on the market out of curiosity but she may as well have been cunning the way things turned out. There had been a bidding war, then a cash buyer in a hurry. Now she was waiting on the two solicitors’ correspondence about her new flat and house-sitting for a friend of a friend, Adrian, who was in Australia. Adrian hadn’t been able to meet her before agreeing to let her stay but he said he trusted their mutual acquaintance; he could tell from reading her emails that she thought things through responsibly enough. A month later, she couldn’t imagine writing those same emails, she couldn’t identify with having a mind where the right concepts, the right words naturally bubbled up with little or no effort. The gush of money and the now frequent hangovers had fogged it. Gone too, were the ideas, the intuitions that used to put her name on features and interviews in national magazines. Now her days were underweight, her mornings missing. If someone were to ask her what had dried up first – her assignments or her enthusiasm for them, she wouldn’t have been able to say. No one had asked her yet. They were all too excited about her new flat and the money she had made. And her new ‘love interest’. Soon she stopped talking about these things. She didn’t want to keep explaining how she felt. Or didn’t feel. This was a lack of feeling for the first time. Sitting in cafes with her friends she felt an ache of fatigue in her vocal chords just from talking and her teeth hung heavy in her dry mouth.

Adrian’s house had three floors and was close to being a very desirable house, certainly far beyond her financial reach, but even on a hot day, now it was May, the unfinished décor made it appear cold to her. Snooping around one afternoon, she found incense in the sole drawer of the hallway table and lit several sticks without opening the windows. She wanted a haze to build, a visible atmosphere, but there was too much space for that and the air above her head seemed to suck the smoke up to the highest point of the house, through the dizzying zigzag of banisters which you could see in the hallway if you looked up. Still, the scent comforted her to a surprising degree – she associated it with her churchgoing early childhood, much as she’d hated Sunday school. Like then, she would breathe the smoke in and tell herself that every in and out breath got her six seconds closer to the end. When her parents divorced and her father told her she didn’t have to go to church ever again it had been one of the purest thrills of her life. Off the hook then and off the hook now, she thought.

She knew even less about Adrian than he did about her. She wondered what the formidable granite-top kitchen island with its many drawers and hefty wooden chopping block was supposed to say about him, considering how it clashed with the untreated kitchen walls. She felt old for finding something so comforting about the counter’s presence, the soothe of someone else’s tangible wealth. Whoever lived here seemed to be playing at adulthood, she thought. Playing house. Wasn’t that all men and women ultimately did together? Elaborate on the games of childhood? What could possibly be real about this, a man and a woman, the man already taken, staying for an indefinite period in someone else’s home? Not that he was living here but he came here two, three nights of the week now, a situation that had evolved without discussion. Adrian had been clear she could have people over, even throw a dinner party if she wanted. But she didn’t invite anyone else.

Before staying here she had never had a relationship contained in such a precise environment. It was like they were animals scooped out of the wild into a synthetic habitat for the sake of their perpetuation. Made for us. She felt uneasy at how such a simple idea felt so loaded, how greedily she wrung meaning from it. Although she was sometimes alone for days on end, she didn’t always feel alone. She felt the house witnessing her.

In the hours he spent naked with her, he displayed the manner of someone who has all the time in the world. He paid such attention to her body, it made her think even more of the shadow times when he wasn’t with her, the days that went by without even a text between them. You could be too present with someone. There had been men who might have wanted her more but only now could she see they had missed so much detail in their having of her and she had missed so much of theirs too. He observed things about her body that she hadn’t even noticed herself, such as the mole near her coccyx. Like someone drew a beauty spot, he said. Still, you should keep an eye on it.

He wasn’t big but he was strong – in the middle of it, he would sometimes arch over her and instruct her to grip his torso with all four of her limbs and, in what always seemed slow, even though she knew it was fast, he would flip her round. There was always that moment after the switch where her head would come away from his shoulder, her limbs would release and the two of them would regain eye contact, sometimes through her hair as it fell past her neck to his shoulders, as if they had slotted into an even better place that was waiting for them. He knew she wanted him to do it but he didn’t do it every time. Or did he know? The hours he spent taking in her body in that private oblivion of his that even she wasn’t fully invited to share always stunned her so she forgot to ask him for anything, as she had with other men. She’d never felt so spent afterwards with anyone.

On his third visit he told her. He gave the girl’s name. Aphra. She didn’t repeat the name to anyone else – she always said ‘the girl’ when she began talking to her friends about what she should do. Something had to be done. Something was already starting to be done, she just didn’t know what it was yet. Had she said ‘Aphra’ back to him at any point she might have picked another name to confuse with it on purpose but Aphra was an island of a name. When she googled ‘Aphra’, the listings were mostly dominated by Aphra Benn, the English Restoration dramatist she remembered vaguely from English A-level. There was no immediate sign of his Aphra online and she managed to stop herself from scrolling down too far. Aphra sounded isolated, island-like herself. Far away in Bristol, still studying. Except she wasn’t studying all the time as she had breast cancer. Had had it. She was recovering now from chemotherapy, had switched her MA to part-time. She had just turned twenty-seven.

‘Christ, what are the odds?’ she said, shaking her head.

‘We broke up before the diagnosis, got back together during her chemo, broke up again at Christmas and then fell back into seeing each other this spring, I guess,’ he said.

‘So what’s happening now?’

He looked tired. And caught, somehow, even though he’d chosen to tell her. He didn’t answer.

‘Between the two of you, I mean.’

‘I honestly don’t know,’ he said finally. He took a breath. ‘I care about her,’ he said.

She replayed this scene many times in her mind. She replayed the scene where she asked him to leave and not come back several times as well, the one that never happened. That night she wordlessly gave him permission to come to bed with her and, as he held the entirety of her chest in his hands, she wondered if Aphra had lost a whole breast or even both.

In late June there was a complication with her new home. The council, in what would be her new borough, were being tardy with the flood risk information her solicitor needed. The couple selling it to her were panicking they would lose their own house purchase if hers didn’t speed up. Everyone was stressed, sighing, using terms like ‘gridlocked sale chain’ that made her laugh at the wrong moment. She wasn’t stressed about any of it. It was all happening to someone else.

Adrian had extended his trip. She could stay in his house until winter if she needed to, even pay him some rent if he got back before she needed to leave.

Then one morning the stress took its turn with her. He noticed her trying not to shudder as they sat at breakfast. What’s wrong? he asked her and refilled her coffee, squeezed her shoulder with his warm hand.

‘You were so anxious last night,’ he said. ‘Your body was tense all over.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s the flat. It’s taking a long time to exchange and everyone’s annoyed with everyone else.’

She began to relate the whole story and then stopped herself. ‘I don’t want to bore you with this,’ she said.

‘No, no, I want to hear it all,’ he said. So she told him, until she was bored herself, embarrassed in the face of someone who had what she perceived to be real challenges, such as medical exams on which his career depended and a family who couldn’t catch him if he fell.

‘It’ll be fine,’ he said and he came over to her side of the table and held her, stroked her hair and then her arm. She wanted to ask him how he could possibly know. He knew nothing about buying a home. But it felt so good she didn’t.

Then he had to leave and once he was gone, her anxiety flared with the click of the door. When other men had left her for their own days, or she had left their homes for her own, she had felt full and content. No doubt, she thought, how he felt whenever he closed the big black door and left her there in the house.

‘I have to make another trip to Bristol,’ he said one morning.

She didn’t react. Some of the trips he announced, others she knew he didn’t.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘It’s not just to check on Aphra. I have to go anyway. I did my undergrad there, remember? I’m giving a talk to the students. Actually it’s bad timing. It cuts up my week.’

‘A talk in July?’ she said.

‘I know it’s odd timing,’ he said. ‘I’d explain, but I’m late. I’ll miss my train.’

She would be the one to end it, she could see that now. If either she or Aphra ended it with him, he was off the hook. Aphra, she thought, that bit younger with her health in question, would perpetuate things. Whether or not she knew there was another woman. Or women, she reminded herself.

While he was in Bristol, she decided to start running. The house was five minutes from Hampstead Heath. What an idiot she was for not starting before, given the location and all the free time she had. She’d been a great runner in secondary school – she should have pursued it further. She went to a running shop, had her gait assessed on the treadmill, bought shoes that looked like spaceships and felt like sofas. The first few trips were miserable but she sensed her old capabilities lying dormant somewhere within her and she knew she would continue. He didn’t notice the muddy trainers for weeks until one day he remarked that Adrian had small feet for a man.

‘Oh, those are mine,’ she said. ‘I’ve been running.’

‘Since when? You never told me.’

‘According to this running app I got, I can now run four kilometres without stopping.’

‘We should go together,’ he said. ‘All this drinking we do. It’s not good.’

‘We can’t go together,’ she said. She usually thought about everything she said to him before she said it, but this time she had escaped herself. ‘I need to be alone when I run. It’s -’

‘Oh, you don’t have to explain,’ he said. ‘Exercise can be like that.’

He looked a little crestfallen. He was trying to hide it but she could see. A small victory for her, an assertion of her privacy. But she didn’t want victories over him, even though she so often felt defeated.

He didn’t bring up the running anytime soon after that, neither did they cut down their drinking. Sometimes he brought beer to drink, mumbling that it was a lighter choice than wine but he still worked his way through multiple bottles. He got close to drunk one night and began talking about his first love, way before Aphra. They had been teenagers – he’d met her at sixth-form college. He knew straightaway she was a mess, he said, but there had been other things he couldn’t get his head around. She blew hot and cold, she hid truths about herself and alluded to truths that later, he realised, either hadn’t existed or had been warped. She had finished with him and it had been his first real devastation. He hadn’t seen her in ten years, not since the last few days of post A-level celebrations. He couldn’t be friends with her, he said. Not then and not now.

‘One of those,’ she said.

‘Ambiguity,’ he said. ‘My first girlfriend embodied the word. Two years on and off together and by the end I still hardly knew her.’

‘Sounds like a painful situation,’ she said – the words she’d used when he’d first explained about Aphra. If he noticed the repetition he didn’t let on.

‘Thing is,’ he said, ‘I like a bit of ambiguity. Actually I think people crave it in varying amounts.’

‘You sound thirteen years old. Like you just discovered the word.’

‘Ambiguity makes for richer experiences. Doubt prevents us taking things for granted.’

‘Taking something for granted is a kind of love,’ she said. ‘Trust in a person. Or a situation.’

‘Taking anything for granted should never be confused with love.’

Ambiguity makes for richer experiences. It was another drug to him, she thought, the man who had once said there wasn’t a drug he’d tried and didn’t like to some degree.

If he were an addict, she thought, I would get out, no questions asked. She did wonder sometimes how much he drank when he wasn’t with her. When it came down to it, he could take or leave anything and that was worse, far worse.

‘Let’s play hide and seek,’ she said one Sunday afternoon. This house is perfect for it.

His face lit up. She’d pressed the button this time and she knew it. The relief. The pleasure in his eyes. She was fun. She was a really fun person. And he knew it. He knew who she was.

‘I’ll hide,’ she said. ‘But I’ll leave you some clues.’

He put his hands over his eyes but not over his grin. She laughed, then she ran up to the highest reaches of the house. She took off her vest top and left it on the second banister, then left her shorts on the top set of stairs. The house seemed to expand as she gained upward, like that dream she kept having where she was in a house, the same house over and over – one that belonged to her, although she’d never seen it in waking life – and the more doors you opened, the more new doors there were. She’d read in a psychology magazine that when you dreamed of a house, you were really dreaming about yourself. She hid in a wardrobe on the top hallway like the one that led to Narnia. There were even old clothes and coats in it and one magnificent floor-length oyster-grey fur hanging there just like in the fictional wardrobe and she slipped into it, down to her underwear now, almost cold, shivering with the anticipation of the growing warmth from the coat and his inevitable delight when he would find her like this. The minutes ticked by and she heard him come close, saying her name, but he didn’t open the wardrobe. Why? Did he think it was too obvious a hiding place? Would he open it and find himself disappointed at her choice? She cursed herself. She should have hidden somewhere more obscure, left a less obvious trail. She heard his footsteps retreat and she waited for him to return and search again but he didn’t.

Finally she came downstairs, picking up the clothes she had scattered as bait. He was lying on the living room sofa, both thumbs keying a message into his phone.

‘Oh, there you are,’ he said when he saw her. ‘Sorry, I didn’t realise you’d stay hidden so long, you weirdo. I did look for you but my mum called and really went off on one. Sorry.’

‘I’m cold and dusty,’ she said. ‘I’m going to take a bath.’

She ran the bath hot and deep, submerged herself and sobbed underwater. If he hears me and asks if the sounds were crying sounds, she thought, I’ll just say I was trying to unblock my nose. He didn’t knock. She heard the front door shut and once she was dressed, she found a note on the kitchen table, saying he’d gone to Tesco to get dinner but it was more than two hours before he returned with it.

Late August. He told her he was going on holiday in a couple of weeks with his dad to Cornwall. His dad had a boat there, a little one that needed some fixing. No internet. Bliss.

‘Ten days without you,’ he said. It was the longest they’d been apart.

‘It’s when I move house.’ She had finally completed on her flat.

‘Shit. I wanted to help you move. I can’t wait to see it.’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I know you wanted to help.’

They wouldn’t be friends, she decided. Not online, not in a pub, not anywhere. They only had one friend in common and that person didn’t have to know any of it. Cleanest break in years.

That night in bed he told her all about his family. His parents’ divorce and their subsequent divorces with his step-parents. He hadn’t even met his father’s new girlfriend. I just don’t have time for it all, he said. And why bother to meet the new bird when it’s only a matter of time until he chucks her?

He had a half-sister he hadn’t met. His dad wasn’t even in contact with her anymore. We’ve spoken on Facebook and I want to meet her one day, he said. Thing is, it would upset my mum too much. Even after all these years. So I keep putting it off.

‘If you meet your sister,’ she said, ‘do you have to tell your mum?

‘I don’t like secrets.’

She imagined a cafe, far in the future, a young woman sitting at a table, waiting for him, knowing he would be bringing her as he needed her presence in all moments like this one. The girl, barely out of teenage, would bear uncanny resemblance to him and of course it would be joyous.

‘Hardly anyone knows about Stephanie,’ he said.

‘But now I do.’

He kissed her. Then he pulled back to look at her. ‘There is nothing I wouldn’t tell you,’ he said. ‘I trust you completely.’

She tried to think about her new home, how she would configure it, move in, pitch some articles or at least get some meetings set up. She had energy again. If she didn’t end it with him, he would carry on visiting her – the same relationship transplanted into a different setting. The same relationship with Aphra. It was just a matter of when. If she had any sense, she’d use his absence to her advantage. Ten days was long enough for her to have done some serious thinking, even meet someone else. It would be stupid to contaminate her new flat with memories of him in it. She thought she didn’t believe in fresh starts but here was one staring her in the face. Was he even going to Cornwall? Surely he’d stop by Bristol first and visit Aphra? Did his father know Aphra?

While he was away, she collected her furniture and boxes from storage, things he had never seen, could never imagine she owned. Ten days, she thought over and over. The second night in her new flat she wept a little, telling herself they might run into each other again but he would never be here, in her home, with her. Ten days. Once they were up, she checked to see when he was back online. Two more days went by. He was definitely back in London, she could see. She couldn’t contact him – she mustn’t. This time she had to hold out. Perhaps it was over and she wasn’t waiting to hear from him, she was waiting for enough days to go by until they would both know it just had to be over. On his fourth day back he messaged her on Facebook and that night he came round to her new home.

‘Wow, it’s so big!’ he said as soon as he entered. ‘Queen of the castle.’

‘Something like that,’ she said, surveying her sea of half-open cardboard boxes and bubble-wrapped framed pictures. She wondered for the first time if he was a little jealous.

He ordered take out sushi for the two of them and helped her locate her toolbox to hang the three biggest pictures. He lifted each one to the wall, put the spirit level on top and she stood back, instructing him to tilt slightly to the left or right.

‘You wouldn’t take me running in Hampstead Heath but maybe you’ll take me for a walk around your new neighbourhood?’ he said the next morning. ‘I don’t know Stratford at all.’

‘You sound like a neglected dog.’

‘I am just a dog but I am your dog,’ he said and he smiled and tried to bark. Then he threw himself onto her new sofa, on top of her and burrowed his face into her neck and her hair, pawed at the neck of her T-shirt and barked again. An impression of desperate affection, she thought, is still a willingness to appear that way.

‘OK, I’ll walk you,’ she said and they walked past the other blocks of flats identical to hers, to the Olympic Park, then through it past the Velodrome and along the River Lea and she wanted to take it all in but she couldn’t. All she could think about was when to say the words that would end it. She had promised herself it would be this morning.

They came to a cafe and he suggested lunch. She sat opposite him and stared, wondering what details she would remember in the years to come. He had near-black hair, slightly curly, and hazel eyes. An old-fashioned face, she thought, like a silent film actor. Manly and effeminate all at once. Would she be able to remember this face as clearly as the others? One or two she could barely visualise and it was nothing to do with the passing years. He smiled at her and held her gaze. How content he seemed, how comfortable.

When they got back she said she needed a nap, she was tired. She had failed at her plan and she wanted him to leave.

‘Well, you must still be exhausted from the move,’ he said. ‘It always takes longer to recover than you think. I’ll see you soon. Not mid-week as I have too much on, but next Sunday for sure and maybe Friday if I can fit it in.’

Such confidence. Such trust in things.

Two days later she rang him. She had a Post-It with notes written on it in front her so she would say the right things. He picked up quickly, he sounded nervous. It occurred to her that they never spoke on the phone – he had only called her once or twice for directions to Adrian’s house, months ago.

‘Let’s cut to the chase,’ she said, hoping her voice wouldn’t buckle.

‘OK.’

‘We can’t continue.’

‘Oh. I see.’

‘I can’t be involved with someone who has a girlfriend. I woke up today and thought, what the hell am I doing?

‘But you knew! You knew. I never hid anything from you.’

‘I know,’ she said, checking her notes. ‘It was my choice to get involved and I’ve decided it’s just not the right situation for me.’

‘Fine.’

‘I don’t regret anything,’ she said. ‘I mean, I’m glad I met you.’

‘I’m glad I met you too.’

‘I’m sure we can run into each other, you know, if Ali has a party and have a perfectly pleasant conversation.’

‘Yup. Sure.’

They said goodbye and as soon as she touched the glass of her phone to end the call she began to cry and then, when she thought the worst of the crying was over, she called her father and cried down the phone to him while he comforted her and told her she’d done the right thing. She decided to unpack her kitchenware. She found the cutlery divider, tried it in the top drawer, and seeing it fit, she divided up the cutlery and placed it inside.

You won’t feel this pain forever, she told herself, while she stacked the plates and bowls in the cabinet above the kitchen counter. Calming herself reminded her of when she couldn’t sleep as a little girl and her mother used to sit first by her bedside and then at the bedroom door before finally tiptoeing into the hallway, deciding she must have fallen asleep. In the morning it never mattered that she had been so devastated to glimpse her mother slipping away into the hall through pretend-shut eyelids. In the morning it would hurt that bit less that he was gone, so little she might not even notice. Or perhaps she would, which would hurt as well. Why did comforting herself irritate her so much? The more gone from my life he is, the better it is for me, she told herself. Then she flipped it – the more recovered I feel, she thought, the further away he must be. She called two friends that night and they told her how strong she was, what an example she’d set. If only they could be like her. In a few weeks, they said, she would have unpacked most things in her new home and had some space and she would feel better.

The next day there was an email from Adrian announcing his return in a month, suggesting she come round for dinner so they could finally meet. And she would go round for dinner, of course she would. Maybe Adrian would have fixed the house up more and that would make it easier to brave it again. They would smile and clink glasses and she would ask him what had taken him to Australia and back, who the grey fur coat in the old tall wardrobe belonged to, and he would have no idea about her hand gripping the edge of the chair to steady herself, exactly as she had done the first time her sole guest had come round and sat at that same table opposite her, staring at her for a long time, the only time he had seemed to have something at stake, whatever it might be.

The more recovered I feel, she said out loud in her living room, the further away he will be. And sitting down to test the position of her sofa in the room now she had moved it again, she looked at the largest painting he had helped hang and realised there could be nothing right about him being far away from her, nothing at all and at least for today, tomorrow and the day after that would be all there was to know.

glasses

Blonde

Anna Maconochie is a fiction writer living in London. She has had short stories published in The Erotic Review, Prole Magazine, the Wells Street Journal and the Dublin Review. Her first short story collection is out in summer 2016 with Cultured Llama Publishing.

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