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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 say:
‘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 away.
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 before.
‘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 will do.
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 art gallery.
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 entrance.
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 someone else.
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 meanings?’
‘Something like that.’
He sits up and takes out another cookie.
‘You’ve got new socks on.’
‘They make me feel good.’
‘You still feeling bad?’
‘Hmm. You been dating anyone recently?’
‘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 Sunday.’
‘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 your problem?’
‘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.
Today, I 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 other.
‘Who are you talking to?’ My best friend’s wife asks.
‘His new lady friend,’ my best friend smirks.
‘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 tho?’
‘We should meet.’
‘That’s my Grandmother in that urn.’
‘Fuck,’ I say, almost dropping the brass trophy.
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, kissing me.
‘You’re still wearing your clothes.’
I untangle myself and begin to undress.
‘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 tonight?’
‘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 HOUSE.’
I turn down the music, and begin to drive.
‘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 grand.’
‘Wait – you don’t want to go any further?’
‘No, I just needed to get to my girlfriend’s house.’
‘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.