there was something about strength in numbers. or something about knowing your strength. it was this book he had given me, it had these quotes, y’know? we used to read them out loud in that confucius voice, that wisdom spitting, patronising voice. he could barely get through a line without a laugh. i would read a good one, and in my eagerness to sing it out, i’d stumble on the easy words, and drop the important inflections. it didn’t matter all too much, but sitting here holding this book under a damn lamp post, watching fire engines flick past, when i should be walking home to talk to him, it seems to matter.
we worked together not so long ago. matching aprons, matching scent. i was the new girl, they called me the new girl for a while. you know like that show, except i could never wear my glasses out in public. the day we met, the room was tight and hot with bodies and i didn’t know which face to look at, they were all tall, and male, and nameless. we were talking about marriage, i remember that, and he wasn’t there just yet. and this other person, he had these drawn eyes, not drawn on but worried, hooded. he said ‘so you found a dress’ and i said ‘well yeah, i just need to find the man.’ and this other guy, so freaking six foot that his shoulders took a permanent dip, he said ‘andy will marry you.’ and around this sharp corner, around the ice machine, andy walks in and it’s him, this guy with something that recognises something in me. he says ‘yeah sure, we’ll get married.’ and he’s really quiet with this thick presence so when we’re making up the lunch orders opposite each other later on and he says ‘you know, if we’re getting married, we should probably go on a first date.’ i mean, damn, i’m speechless. and you gotta know, i’m a real talker, about anything and everything, to fight my ground, to fill the air but just then, with this andy kid, the air rushes right out of me, and i got nothing to say.
the aprons are gone now.
class had been hard today, it was the one that i hated, the one all about language, and how people used to spell the words that aren’t the words we use today, but the words that you can’t pronounce on wikipedia, that used to be town names, or types of rock. it sure as hell makes my eyelids hang together, i get used to sitting in lecture halls with my hand on my forehead, hiding each droop of my eyes, hearing this skinny little thing in a brown pleather a-line reeling off archaisms in these long slavic tones. i had waded through class, waiting for ‘time’s up’, and now i’m sat on this bench thinking that i would be halfway home if i hadn’t stopped, and i probably should just get up. my class was early, these students were walking the opposite way, heading in for their first hour, and man, did we overdress that much? who are they trying to impress? there wasn’t a damn person on my program that was worth waking up early for, for putting on that mask of foundation and concealer and powder.
so i’m walking now, mainly because i can hear sirens and they’re kinda getting on my nerves, i’d like to be home with the windows shut so that i can think. he would be leaving the apartment soon, to go to his meeting, and i feel almost like i should have made him lunch, but he hates my cooking anyway. we eat most meals apart but next to one another these days, on this long white sofa we picked up. he was meant to leave earlier, around the same time as me but i let him oversleep, and he’d text me, with two misspellings, only half annoyed that i hadn’t told him to get the fuck up. he was taking my bike to the train station soon. we used to ride our bikes to get our groceries, these orange bags swinging from the handlebars, and i always wanted to stop and kiss but he really is this matter of fact, straight to the point person. ‘we can do that back at your house.’
i didn’t live in that place now, we had this place now, that i painted in greys and greens, and the floors were uneven and he didn’t like it when i left clothes on the floor but i didn’t much notice that he didn’t like it, so it was okay. well for me. you can tell we do need to talk. so i’m walking, and i’m looking at my phone right now because of that message, and how can he not spell quite properly, is that a typo, because i’m hoping it’s a typo. i’m deleting the text thread because it slightly annoys me because i know now that lancaster was once loncastre, and that lon refers to the river lune, and castre means fort because there’s an ancient site there, but he thinks that it would ‘be quite surprising if he can get off work early now’. a roll of my eyes. i should have woken him.
it’s not so far from home, and i can walk through this memorial garden, where all these headstones are grouped in one corner. they’ve been moved, they don’t mark a grave anymore, and it just seems kind of wrong to have these bodies in the cemetery around the corner just rustling in the ground, with their names taken away. i can’t believe people would barbecue in this cold but the smoke on the air is sticky. my feet hurt in these shoes that he bought me for christmas or my birthday or some anniversary, they cost far too much, and the label means far too little to me but i feel like he gets this kick with these hugos and strausses. i’m looking forward to kicking them off, on the mat of course, but when he goes out i might put on these cheap sandals i should have thrown away ages ago and spend the loose change in our key dish on chocolate. it’ll help me think and then i’ll make sure to put away the wrappers because then it doesn’t really count.
i’m rounding the corner to our street now, kicking at the sidewalk to knock off the grass from the memorial garden, that just seems to hang to my toes, and i feel like knocking my head on number sixty eight’s ugly garden wall because it’s almost like i’ve walked towards the sirens and they’re driving me crazy, and of course it’s now that i look up and see that it’s my apartment building, and it’s on fire. it doesn’t seem to register that quickly because i’m now thinking, well no, no one would be barbecuing in late february would they, and only you could find a noise annoying and end up walking towards it, and then i’m seeing my bike, all tarnished and charred already, still locked at the side of the house, and i’m realising that andy is in there, he’s still in there, and i’m stood still on the sidewalk shouting at these towering guys in those costumes who are lined up with hoses, and i’m shouting that ‘my fiance is still in there, he slept in, he’s still home’ but the sixty something man in the flat above ours, Philip, he has his hand on my shoulder.
and damn, the guy who only uses the backdoor of his apartment, on the ground floor, with the weird dirty hair, he has his hand on my shoulder, and no one is doing anything, except they’re all talking at me, and as we’re all stood, cloaked in this uncomfortable heat of our tall brown home, i can almost hear our white sofa sinking through the floor.
i hear it. he left already. he’s gone to work, they saw him leave for the train station. he told philip he didn’t want to cycle and crumple that expensive suit i saw him lay out last night.
and now i’m backed away from the building, and i’m thinking that this is a big, flashing red sign that we don’t need to talk, that maybe we can both try harder without these long conversations, that these plans i keep making in my head aren’t needed. i’m deciding, as i watch the drapes in my apartment singe and sink out of sight, that we’ll be fine when i see him tonight. i guess that i get carried away with these trains of thought, which is something like irony because it’s a car, not a train, that is burning on the driveway in front of us.
© Shannon Bushby
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper. Read Shannon’s interview]