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Rose [revised] by Tom Spencer

© Tom Spencer

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You waited until she was asleep, but that didn’t help with the sick feeling in your stomach. Half expected the phone to burn your hands, or fly up and smack you in the face. Her tights lay on the floor where you pulled them off. Wine glasses on the coffee table; smudges of lipstick. Maybe she’d wake up, hear something and come walking in, concerned that you couldn’t sleep.

This was crossing a line, even by your standards. Your father’s death, the break-up, being stuck on an island – none of it quite explained this.

But you had to know what was really going on in that life of hers. And you could have looked into her eyes for a thousand years and she’d have never given up the truth. So you sat down on the sofa and turned on the lamp, and you started to read.

You fucked on the third date. You thought that was quite early. You had spoken about it many times before, in person and on your phones. She had already sent pictures of herself. Maybe a sign that things wouldn’t exactly be Pride and Prejudice?

You met online. Couldn’t believe your luck when she replied to your message, and then again and again until pretty soon you were in a free-flowing conversation – stuff just tumbling out of you both. Things you didn’t tell many people.

Big eyes, brown hair flopping everywhere, her skin so white and clear. Mountainous cheekbones. Perfect! She had recently moved to the island from London and was looking to explore. She liked the arts, she said, liked guys who were into books and theatre and stuff.

“On this island – good luck!” you wrote.

“You don’t know my skills!”

Actually, you thought that’s what gave you a chance. Despite her beauty.

Soon you were off the dating app and messaging directly. Messages thick and fast, piling up on top of each other. You checked each of yours several times before pressing send, knowing they could be a stepping stone, or the misstep that ended everything.

Work colleagues noticed you smiling more. Friends were pleased you were back in the mix and said she was “cute”, “fuckable” had “a good arse”. Irish said he had meant to visit anyway, so he’d be happy to be introduced!

You offered to show her round the island, keep her safe. Said there were caves around the shore some people explored and never returned from. Mostly dorky people like her. The lucky ones ended up on pirate ships, or down by the docks.

“You trying to prostitute me?!” she wrote. “Before we’ve even been on a first date?”

“Who said anything about a date?”

She said she liked gin, were there many good bars? She really had no idea. Had she been outside yet?

Then she put on the brakes. Had some allergy or another, said she couldn’t actually meet up. At least not yet. “I feel like a pariah,” she said. “A freak. All I do is work and come home. I know no one.”

“If it’s any consolation,” you replied, “I never had high hopes for your looks anyway!”

She liked this. Lots of emojis, both cross and smiling, the best kind.

You almost didn’t meet because of the snow. It had fallen in an irregular month. Drifted downwards quiet and feathery and then dashing down thickly. For several weeks, it felt like. The world slowed down. Silenced by beautiful sheets of white. It felt as if you were being given a second chance, like things were starting over.

You finally met in a pub overlooking the sea. The closest thing the island had to fancy. High chairs and mosaic vases. Lecherous landlord in tweed jacket. A younger couple playing scrabble in the corner.

She was beautiful but not like in the photos. She had two marks on her face, the allergy was real, but when she spoke you barely noticed.

She mentioned an ex in the first five minutes – just flung the information out there, as if she had to get it out the way. It wasn’t the only thing she flung. A chip, beermat, whatever she could lay her hands on – every time you teased her. And you didn’t hold back. Her accent, temper, clumsiness, it was all fair game.

“Next time it’ll be something harder,” she said. “And I won’t miss.” Her eyes were so big, like they could stare down the world.

She worked at the island’s theatre. Was the only paid and full-time employee, and even this was thanks to lottery funding that could evaporate in 12 months’ time. Her mission statement was to increase cultural activity on the island. Much of her time was spent working with local schools, community groups, anyone who might listen. She had previously worked at Sadler’s Wells. “People think I’m mad for even trying,” she said. “But you have to try things, right?”

She was a cocktails girl, mostly, marking each of them out of 10, critiquing their sorry glasses. *Not enough vodka in this one. Needs to be thicker, more creamy. Four coffee beans just looks silly.*

She seemed to enjoy the power that came with giving judgment, and you came to like this about her, the way she’d etch her opinion into things. Showing she wasn’t too impressed or cowed by fancy surroundings or pretensions. Might easily tell them to go do one.

She matched you drink for drink that night, until you were the last people left.

You kissed her neck and felt her beginning to dissolve.

“Control herself!” she sighed.

You kissed her more, nibbles, your hand moving in.

“I have a weakness for being kissed on the neck,” she said. “I get carried away.”

You had to huddle together walking to the taxi rack, it was so cold.

“Walk carefully,” you said.

“Then slow down!”

You played with the idea of you both slipping over.

“Do you want to end up in the road?” she growled, grabbing your jumper.

You waited with her until her taxi arrived. Pillows of snow all around you, and more of it falling all the time.

Where did the suspicions first come from?

The way she was always checking her phone whenever you returned from the bar or the toilet? Or that time after the broccoli and the cocktails, when everything had seemed to be going well.

She never set a password on her phone, would just leave it lying around your flat. You wondered if a part of her wanted to be caught.

“I’m a bit of a self-saboteur,” she once told you.

“I think we both are,” you replied.

No. That wasn’t it. She just didn’t know what you were capable of. Her and the rest of the world. Sometimes you think you’d have to actually kill someone for girls to stop thinking you’re nice.

“I can’t sleep,” you said. “Am gonna read for a bit in the living room. I don’t want the light to disturb you.”

“You’re very sweet,” she mumbled.

You kissed her on the forehead, crept out the room.

You positioned yourself on the sofa so you weren’t visible from the doorway. A book open on your lap, just in case.

Second date. A restaurant right by the water, proclaiming itself a fresh-seafood specialist. Wooden panelling floor-to-ceiling. She looked more beautiful than before. The allergy was going or you just weren’t noticing.

Dinner cost you £80. A side of broccoli alone was £7. You both laughed at that, the fucking ridiculousness of it.

“This is London prices!” she said.

“Who chose this place?”

“I only suggested it!”

She sat tight lipped as you complained to the manager about the portion sizes. It had been her idea, but then she just left you to it, like it was a challenge. But it felt good, facing off to the manager. Like you and her were on the same side. Teammates.

Actually, for the laughs, the smiles – and what might come later – you would have paid double, triple. Broccoli all year round.

Afterwards you sat with cocktails in the corner, watching the snow outside. Water glimmered darkly.

“I might push you into the snow sometime,” you said.

“That’s so mean, why would you ever do that?”

“Because,” you shrugged. “Besides, you’re just the type of person to put a stone in the middle of a snow ball.”

“For you, I’d definitely do that!”

You laughed and kissed and sat more tightly together. You kissed her on the neck the same as the first date. Her response was even stronger, you could feel the convulsions, her body the way it moved. One or two diners glared at you, and you smiled back. Sea bass wankers.

“Why can’t all these people just disappear?” you said.

“I wish they would.”

“They might not notice?”

“They *would* notice!” she laughed.

You agreed that it would be soon.

You stayed there a good while, feeling the tingly growth of something unimaginable just weeks earlier.

Then she got out her phone, and everything changed.

A message popped onto her screen.

Some guy.


Who was Simon?

You weren’t the only one.

She received messages from him, yes, but she no longer replied. Hadn’t for weeks. She protested, swore, looked you straight in the eye. Last time she saw him was almost a month ago. She told stories of how he had been mean to her. She almost seemed pissed off.

You barely bothered to say goodbye.

She messaged you as you walked home. A screengrab of a message she had just sent the Simon guy, telling him it was all over, that this had to stop. How she had started seeing someone else.

Underneath, she wrote how sorry she was, how much she’d like to see you again. Either way, I want you to know how much of a nice time I had in your company. I don’t often meet guys like you.

You waited two days before replying. If you still want to come round to mine, you wrote, I won’t say no.
She replied soon after, all smiley faces. You settled on an evening the following week. Then you booked that day as holiday.

She asked about your family, poking and prodding where she thought it might hurt. She was smart like that. Your parents. She sensed that vulnerability and one morning over tea and sourdough she went for it. So innocent sounding.

You went to the kitchen straight afterwards, stayed there a long time.

When you came out, she was all apology. “I’m really not one to pry,” she said with wet eyes.

It was okay. You both did these things. Tried to hurt the other person, as you had been hurt, as you still needed to be hurt.

You said you actually made the fish pie, but she saw right through that. “And these prawns, did you catch them yourself?” she laughed.

“Yes, from just over there,” you said, pointing out the window.

She asked you in advance if she should pack an overnight bag. I hope this doesn’t sound overly forward.

“Not at all,” you replied. The second date hadn’t exactly finished well, but things were looking up! Just the prospect of her coming round made the flat feel warmer, more like an actual home.

You took the day off to clean the place. Some pictures you took down and stowed away.

Outside everything was snow. Fresh and clean unlike the world it descended upon. You willed it to fall, heavier, faster.

“What is this music?” she asked over dinner. (Apparently Spotify’s ‘40 Songs to Have Sex’ to wasn’t what she expected.)

“These Alexa things have a mind of their own,” you shrugged, quickly changing playlist.

“Maybe change over to something we both actually like!”

After dinner, you sat on the sofa sipping wine, chatting ever more slowly. The glasses knocked over and smashed against the coffee table as you lifted off each other’s tops, kissing furiously.

You stumbled into your bedroom, pulling desperately at each other like you were running out of time.

“Should we turn the lights off?” she said.

“No. I want to see you!”

“It’s just, I feel self-conscious.”

You almost laughed. “You really have nothing to feel self-conscious about!”

You still turned them off. In a way you were flattered.

In bed the next morning, you asked about the bruise on her leg.

“I fell over on the ice,” she said, nestling her head against your chest.

“You poor thing,” you said, rubbing it gently. Then you moved down the bed and kissed it.

When you kissed goodbye at the bus stop you noticed a small scar above her left eyebrow; like a tiny porcelain crack. You knew such cracks well, had known them most your childhood. You kissed her once more. It was the last time the two of you would in public.

Your father. Dead almost a year and you hadn’t much cared the whole time. What was wrong with you? The whiteboard in your living room, you had scribbled on it in black marker:

*Am I suffering inside without realising it?*

It stayed there for weeks. Being alone so much of the time, how could you really tell?

Add it to the list of things you never talked about.

Until she came along. Also with an alcoholic father, and able to talk about it. Things he liked doing, meals he cooked, places he took her as a kid, she’d tell you all this like she was trying to figure something out.

“Do you think it’s why we drink so much?” you said.

“We have the gene?” She looked a little scared, as if worried about what was inside her.

And who wouldn’t be scared, feeling a volcano of pain and anguish inside you the whole time?

Angry flare-ups that seemed to come out of nowhere, causing people to back off, leaving you even more alone. Seemed nobody understood, unless they had also felt that childhood pain, the sense of abandonment, injustice. A father in the world who didn’t seem to care. Why you?

Then he went and died.

Leaving you all over again.

Who wouldn’t drink?

And drink you did. Cocktails, wine, gin and tonics, by mid-afternoon the world tilting softly as you stumbled outside searching for a taxi. That was, until you stopped with the pubs altogether. Simply stocked the fridge and stayed in, dispensing with social ceremony.

One Friday she sent you pictures she didn’t send any of the other guys. You know this much.

They had her face in it, everything. Especially for you, she wrote under one of them.

The night before you had chatted to her under a fake profile on Facebook. A profile pretending to be a friend of Simon. The guy she swore was in the past, who had been so mean.

It was weeks after she had first stayed over, there was no need for any of this. But some disease inside of you, maybe, you don’t know. Whatever the reason, you did it.

You were now in proper creepio territory. You never spoke about this even to your closest friends. Not even Irish. Later, even your therapist would look unsettled.

But it got easier, the more you did it. And once she started replying you were hooked. Started to feel almost normal. Just something to do after a few beers.

You chose a good picture, taken from a friend of a friend. He was handsome in a way you weren’t, with the arms for a fling, a smile to meet the parents. Crouching happily next to him on some beach was a pretty tanned girl – and a dog! (Later named Freddie: soon to go in for surgery – *expensive but it would be worth it...*)

You called this guy Luke. Nice and biblical. Luke Eskinazi. Because no-one would make up a surname so ridiculous.

The messaging started off slow. She hadn’t heard of this friend (because he didn’t exist), but once you had her – you had her. It was a conversation she wanted to have. All it took was a few facts (what she had told you in that restaurant), some flattery and a few open-ended questions.

Simon mentioned things fizzled out between you guys? you wrote.

Who are you? she replied. A friend? I’m surprised he mentioned me.

Ha! he mentioned you alright! I think maybe he liked you more than you realised. (What girl didn’t like hearing this? Unless the guy was a total weirdo, of course...)

Really? I didn’t get that impression, she wrote. I always seemed to be the one making the effort. By the end I couldn’t have felt less attractive to him.

That definitely wasn’t the case, you replied. He was just lame at expressing himself.

Her messages were coming more quickly. You got such a thrill when you saw the ‘...’ sign that she was writing a response. At the same time, it was eating you up.

You turned things up a notch: Simon said the sex was some of the best he ever had.

She loved this. Said Simon had given her some of her best ever orgasms.

What made him so good?

She didn’t hold back: size, stamina, muscles etc. She seemed to remember a lot.

Do you miss it?

Yes, I do miss it.

At the same time this was going on, you were WhatsApp-ing her as your actual self, talking about a grilled-pepper recipe you had just tried out. This got less of a response.

You not tempted to resume things? you wrote as Luke. Now you know what he really thought about you? If the sex was that great?

You were literally reintroducing this guy into her life. What the fuck was wrong with you?

A pause. No more messages. Minutes passed. Were you rumbled?

Then those dotted scribbling lines!

Okay, so I’ve just invited Simon round for dinner tomorrow night. Eek! she wrote, followed by a thousand nervous emojis.

Tomorrow night would be Friday. On Sunday you were due to visit her place yourself. For the first time. Her flatmate was going to be away, she had said. I’d really like to cook for you.

Next evening, she phoned while in the bath.

“I’m all wet and alone in the flat,” she sighed. “Can you come over? I’ll pay for some of the taxi.”

Simon must have not come round after all. Relief overwhelmed every other emotion, you couldn’t help it. You loved the sound of her voice, her every breath. You kept her talking for as long as possible.

“It’s too late,” you said. “I’m practically asleep already. I wouldn’t be very good!”

(You didn’t bother mentioning all the vodka and painkillers you had taken.)

“It’s ridiculous us both doing nothing on a Friday night!” she gushed. “There is so much we could do together. One taxi!”

“I’ll be there soon enough,” you said. “Two days’ time. You can hold on until then?”

“I think so,” she said quietly.

“Don’t do anything silly in your horny state, okay?” There was a pause, then you both said goodbye.

Minutes later, she sent you the pictures. Posing in front of a full-length mirror, just her knickers and bra on. Another one with her bra off. Hair still wet.

*Especially for you*. Her face in the picture smiling coolly into the mirror.

You got out a blindfold you bought to wear on a plane. You put that and a scarf under your pillows. You made sure you both drank even more than usual that evening.

Why don’t you come round to mine instead? you had written to her the day before. I’m not actually so fussed about your cooking ??

“Oh, okay then,” she replied. “But if I come to yours, I better get to choose what we watch. And I expect gin!”

You said she could have all the gin in the world.

That night there were so many dark confused feelings you had to channel. Didn’t know how you’d feel yourself while doing it. But you would have crumpled like a piece of paper around her, except for this show of dominance.

You lay there together afterwards, a pile of limbs, your breathing all over the place. She asked about your phone – had you been filming her? – but she didn’t pursue the matter, like she didn’t really want to know the answer.

Lots of things you both didn’t want the answer to.

Once she was asleep, you stole out of the bedroom. The phone was just lying there on the coffee table.

You didn’t feel any guilt, not much anyway. Not once you sat down and got going.

Just as you thought you couldn’t be any more shocked.

Other guys you could handle. Even so many and so quickly, you might have been able to live with.

But the overlap was too much. It killed something.

Jose. She was fucking this guy during your first few dates. While you were taking her to dinner and complaining about broccoli. After she had sent you that screengrab of her message to Simon, pretending to be laying herself open to you. *It’s not often I meet guys like you.* You read that trudging home in the snow, and it had warmed you up.

She had fucked him two days before your third date – when you first slept together. When you had taken a day’s holiday to scrub the flat. When she had asked to turn the lights off, and you told her there was nothing to worry about.

(And the Chump of The Year award goes out to...)

She then messaged the Jose guy again that Friday. Fancy hanging out at mine tonight? My flatmate’s away!

Just when you thought the Simon/Luke thing was fucked up. And was wondering if you had gone too far.

She was piling them up.

It was difficult to get all her great community work in order. That Friday:

First – she hoped for Simon and cooking him dinner, after messaging him the night before following her chat with Luke.

Second – fuckboy she messaged at lunchtime, presumably when she felt that Simon wouldn’t happen.

Third – finally late at night in the bath, after no reply from fuckboy and she’s thinking what the fuck am I going to do with my Friday night, she phoned you. Can you come over? Just one taxi.

Then she sent the pictures. Like that was making up for something.

*Especially for you.*

Some sense of humour she had.

Not exactly Sadler’s Wells.

Fuckboy Jose. She shared things with him, stuff you thought was your conversation. Her family, work at the theatre, the ridiculous hours, how no one seemed to take her seriously. You wondered, did she prefer speaking to him, if she had to choose?

He wasn’t even good looking. Like some rodent.

She liked to leave a few dents wherever she went, and at first you liked this about her.

Her first time inside your flat, she looked around slowly, picking things up, putting them down somewhere different.(“Have you actually read all of these?” “You’d have to be an ogre to drink out of this cup, it’s about a pint! Why do you have a whiteboard?)!”)

You stood and watched, a little helpless, worrying what she might notice; but also happy she was so interested.

Staying at yours, she used up all your shampoo.

“Is that a problem?” she said when you mentioned it.


“Should I put some back?”

“I’m sorry,” you said. “Your hair does look nice.”

Your dressing gown she flung down on your bed, the towel she dropped onto the floor. She got dressed with her back to you, doing her make-up.

“People will be able to see you, you know?”

“I don’t think they can,” she said. “Not with the net curtains.”

“They only work with the light off.”

“There’s not enough light. It’s bright outside,” she said.

Not for the first time, it felt you contesting something more, but neither of you wanted to shoot first.

She wore your dressing gown so often it almost felt like hers. You enjoyed slowly undoing the belt, moving the two parts aside, taking your time. The suspense, and power.

She enjoyed that too. And being pushed into the bed and spanked, pinned down. All the things people don’t often talk about. Deeds only known in the act.

“You can go harder,” she told you once. “You don’t have to worry about hurting me.”

Once you started checking her phone you weren’t going to stop. It became a highlight of her visits. Borderline addiction. Sitting in the living room after she had fallen asleep, trawling through other strands of her life.

Simon, Jose. And then before Simon some guy called Harris – a brick shithouse with tattoos – who wrote about fucking on the sofa and coming inside her.

You thought about the sequence of guys, the overlap. You became convinced you saw the Harris guy in your local Co-op. You scratched your head at her ingenuity, how she had managed to find all these people on a bloody island. Were they also intelligent guys interested in books and the theatre? Their messaging skills didn’t exactly say Marcel Proust. More beach holidays and the inside of gyms.

You imagined her putting her clothes back on in the morning, saying goodbye without her eyes. You pondered things she wrote to them, pictures she sent. And then sometimes you thought back over your first dates together. The snow and how it made you feel.

You watched the video of you and her a few times, but it provided no comfort, no sense of one-upmanship. Sometimes you just listened to her groans, wondering what they really meant.

You took longer and longer walks at night along the cliff tops, elements raging. You wondered if you’d ever get out from the place you found yourself in.

You messaged friends who gave you advice, but your messages were never truthful, and neither were theirs. How could they be, really, when they lived hundreds of miles away and were having kids, getting hitched? Irish said he would come and visit, he just needed to find the time.

Your work suffered, clients started returning designs, asking to speak to someone else. Colleagues asked: “How is Thomas? Their soft breezy tone couldn’t conceal the worry and concern in their voice. You could spot the frightened eyes as you walked the office, a smiling zombie (and manager!).

You wondered how much of your unhappiness they could sense. That you felt washed-up at the age of 30, ashamed of what you had become? Or that you had spent the entire weekend drinking and masturbating, imagining the girl you were dating fucking various other guys. One of whom she was still fucking. Another one let you go first at the checkout because you had fewer items.

Or did they sense how everything in your life was just getting worse and worse; how the best things in your life were in the past; your life now just residue.

You wondered if they talked about you behind your back. Probably not about the masturbation, but perhaps how you always seemed weighed down with things, would actually be pretty attractive if you just laughed and smiled a bit more.

It felt like they wanted to open you up, gawp inside; you shunned them wherever possible.

So, of course, when your birthday came round they made a fuss. Huge cake, raucous singing. Bar after fucking bar. Like that might rouse you from the rut or whatever it was they thought you had fallen into. You would have darted from the room, if only you had the courage.

When you did get home you threw the remainder of the cake in the bin. And then logged back on.

You were now messaging her on Facebook under two fake profiles: Luke Eskinazi and also as Jose.

Creepy creepio.

Messaging her as ratboy was even easier. She never suspected a thing. You worried she might add you as a friend, that she’d then see you had no other photos, had only been on Facebook five minutes. But she never did, she was so sucked in by the messages, the entire situation.

You used knowledge from what you remembered of her WhatsApp messages, and you remembered a lot. Pretty soon she was saying all sorts. It was another conversation she wanted to have.

You wrote that you were sorry you were unable to come round that Friday, you should have replied sooner. Would make it up to her soon. I hope so, she wrote. You owe me!

You wrote about just wanting to keep it as a fuck thing. She said that was fine.

You got her to describe what aspects of the sex she liked the most. Something about you, you just couldn’t help it. Apparently Jose did it to her just how she liked. Just as she had said about Simon.

On her phone one night in your flat, you checked the dates of her messages to fuckboy, calculating how soon before or after you had met was he fucking her.

You thought about dinner in the £80 restaurant, how well everything seemed to be going. And then you imagined fuckboy doing her from behind, his toothy grin, slapping away, getting everything he wanted. Her phone on the bedside cabinet, perhaps, flashing with one of your triple-checked messages. Reading material for the morning. Commas in all the right places.

Soon enough Harris, Simon, Jose and your good self weren’t enough to hold her attention. Luke was also proving pretty interesting.

Writing as Luke, you asked more questions about her and Simon and what made it so good. Slapping? How hard? Hair pulled? She never flinched at a single question.

It went on for weeks, until you slipped into talking about what you might do to each other, if you ever met.

Once it started it ran so easily. You knew what buttons to press.

She was a little suspicious at times, would ask questions, try to slow things down, but she was not suspicious enough. Not one Friday night when you continued describing how you’d kiss her neck and run your hands–

Fuck it, she wrote, fancy meeting for a late-night drink to see what will definitely not happen?

Despite everything, you couldn’t quite believe it. Still felt betrayed, a little bit like wanting to cry. And then hate and confusion and self-loathing tore through you.

Fuck it, you wrote, you only live once. Where were you thinking

A Google map address arrived moments later: a bar you had suggested to her on one of your early dates. The other side of the island.

10pm, meet outside?

She sent you links to jobs in London, other cities. “Why don’t you move if you think the island is hurting you so much?”

“You’ve just moved here,” you said.

“I’m talking about you.”

She tried signing you up for community events, anything to get you meeting people. Even invited you to theatre performances. “Already I know more people than you do,” she said. “What are you afraid of? You can’t just sit around watching the same old movies all the time..”

She brought a book to your flat that belonged to rodent boy. Sometimes left it lying on the coffee table. She said it belonged to a friend.

“What’s it about?” you said once, grabbing it. You flicked pages, acted once or twice like something had caught your eye – some hand-written note, perhaps. “Are you enjoying it? Is this your friend’s favourite genre?” you continued, making her squirm.

It was an exploration book about a man who had gone off to live by himself in the wilderness, following a traumatic event. You had read similar books, used to find them therapeutic. When a place wholly new and different seemed the only way to make living bearable.

“She has good taste, your friend. Can I borrow it?”

“I need to read it myself first,” she said, snatching it back.

You smiled at her as she put the book in her bag. “You fallen over on the ice anymore? Any more bruises I can kiss better?”

She shook her head.

“It’s very slippery out there.”

“I’m alright,” she said. “There isn’t ice anymore.”

Then you said, out of nowhere: “You really are an incredible woman.”

She looked at you like you’d short-circuited, like a wire might pop out the side of your head.

The funny thing was, you meant it.

The Luke incident. That’s what fucked you both up, changed everything. The night she went out to meet him. You felt like a brute.

Through the messages she was sending to him (a real person as far as she was concerned), it was like you could feel her vulnerability. You started to care for her, to worry. Out in the world by herself, so unknowing of the true situation. Crazy what you sometimes felt.

As she headed out in a taxi – showered, dressed up and psyched for possible sex with someone new – you knew that person would never show up.

If he had existed and she had fucked him, it would have cut you up. But you knew that was never going to happen. And that opened you up to a different kind of pain.

Waiting outside the bar she had suggested. In the cold and dark, growing ever more doubtful and then confused and then angry and then maybe scared. You could imagine the whole thing. It must have been scary.

Afterwards she wrote to Luke: You humiliated me. I trusted you and you humiliated me…

You couldn’t bear to read the whole thing.

You wondered if she cried when she got home, but you couldn’t even really think on that.

You didn’t have the heart to message her as the real you the whole time this went on. Just sat at home drinking.

The next day, you met her in the usual pub, where you had your first date. Where she had thrown beermats, chips, remonstrated with the landlord about using plastic straws.

She entered and moved through the room quickly – as if hurrying to safety – and then she flung her arms around you.

Over cocktails, you asked what she had got up to last night? She kept it vague, just in the flat drinking with her flatmate. You nodded, allowing her words to hang in the air.

You were both in a situation you didn’t quite understand.

She eventually mentioned getting wasted and falling asleep with her clothes on. “Doesn’t sound so bad,” you chuckled.

She rested her head on your shoulder. “I’m so tired. Can we just have a quiet one?”

“Of course. Anything you want.”

“Play scrabble with me? It sounded almost like a plea.”

“Is there a board?”

“I’m sure there is,” she said. “I saw people playing. Once.”

“Maybe they took the board with them. Like a pair of thieves.”

“Please don’t make fun of me.”

She sank her face against your chest and closed her eyes.

“I can hear your heartbeat,” she said.

You cradled her head, stroking her hair. You could almost have been a normal couple.

Anniversary of The Death approached, and memories and emotions pushed their way in. Not so easy to leave the past behind. Half your face swelled up like a chipmunk. Mouth throbbed with pain. The dentist said it was just an infection and you were almost disappointed.

She insisted on coming over. Unless you wanted to be alone? she wrote.

What you didn’t want was her seeing you this way, for this to be how she might remember you.

You also didn’t want to be alone.

No – company would be nice! you replied. And thank you.

“It’s just some fool,” you told her when she spoke about weird Facebook messages that had freaked her out. “Someone who’s just angry, lonely,” you added. “You shouldn’t even think about it.”

“You’re probably right,” she sighed. “Thank you. She gave your arm a little squeeze, and you gave one back.”

It was another lazy Saturday afternoon. A movie you’d watched before, a second bottle of red, despite the pills you were on. Both of you still in dressing gowns. You agreed you should probably eat something.

Then she sat up and removed from her bag the book; she took out a bookmark and she started to read. You watched her, not a trace of guilt or anxiety on her beautiful features. Those mountainous cheekbones. And you wondered how much her beauty had let her get away with over the years.

You asked, “How many other guys are there?”

At first she just sat there, saying nothing, as if suspended in time. Then she composed herself: “I don’t know what you mean. What are you going on about?”

“How many guys? Aside from me?”

There was fear in her eyes. “It’s not like that,” she said thickly, swallowing.

“Not like what?”

She kept her eyes on the TV.

“You remember I said my dad was an alcoholic?” she said.

“Obviously I do.”

“Well I think I’ve inherited the addict gene.”


She swallowed, her voice quivered. “And I think I’m maybe a bit addicted with guys.”

“Well in that case that’s fine,” you said. So then you thought you’d just pop around here? Have me cook for you, fuss around, pretend to have some interest in me as a person?”

“I did like you, honestly. I did! I still do. It’s just–”

“It’s just what?”

“I had just come out of a long-term relationship,” she said. “When I moved to this island I knew *no one*.”

You thought you could hear some relief in her voice. She was speaking more slowly, you both were. It was like you were walking across a tightrope together, holding hands. If one of you fell, you would both go down.

How could you do that to me? That’s what you wanted to say. But you felt too embarrassed, like an idiot for ever hoping for something more.

“You allowed me to invest so much into things,” you said instead. You knew I did.”

“We were never in a relationship!” she said, finally looking at you. “I didn’t know, we never discussed this. For all I knew you were seeing other girls.”

She now rushed her words, tripping over them, raising her hands, palms exposed.

You looked back at the TV. You were too weak to argue, too tired for anything.

“You’ve no idea how it feels,” she said. “To ache all over, all the time! I bruise and I don’t even know why.” Her voice was pained, almost teary. “The headaches, I’m too tired to even move sometimes. You don’t know the shit I’ve been through. The allergy isn’t gone, you know. It’s just transitioning, they think.”

You found yourself sniggering. “You were able to move some of the time.”

She threw her arms in the air. “I’m sorry that your male ego feels slighted,” she said, voice flaring. “I really am. I’m sorry I wasn’t vomiting at the sight of every other guy I came across.”

“You know that’s not what I’m saying,” you said, leaning back on the sofa. You closed your eyes.

“Are you in pain?” she said, trying to hold your hand. “Do you need more painkillers?”

You ignored her, not wanting to accept her show of kindness. You lay down on the sofa, rolling onto your side. She went into the kitchen. When she returned she carried a cup and painkillers. Ogre cup, she smiled.

“Take these,” she said. “And sip this.”

You swallowed, then again, and again.

“What have you mixed in?”

“It’s just something to help,” she said. She kissed your forehead.

She adjusted the cushions. She brought a blanket.

“Are you sure three pills?” you said.

“It’s what it says. Take another one, just to be safe.”

She lay down beside you on the sofa. You wrapped your arm around her, felt her warmth.

“I’ve been happier with you than since I don’t know when,” you tried to say.

She squeezed your hand. “You should sleep.”

You heard her say something more, something about knowing what you really were. But you were falling asleep by that point, and she was breaking from your grasp.


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