A Very Small Man

Picture credit: Qasim Malick

I met him two days after Luke broke up with me: eyes still a little swollen, but eyeliner, flicked across the lid like a signature, disguised that. A deep purple stained my lips like cherry juice. Chrissy took me by the hand and led me to the bar, where her boyfriend – Fred, with shoulder-length blonde waves like a Viking – was sloshing his beer around as he grabbed the arm of the shorter man next to him. They were laughing. Deep in their mirth, violently male. I could smell their sweat as we approached but they didn’t care. Chrissy elicited a kiss only after she pressed her breasts against Fred’s back. 

“Hey Max.” Chrissy leant over the sticky bar to give Fred’s friend a kiss on the cheek that didn’t quite touch his skin. She introduced me. I tried to look entirely comfortable.

Max looked at me, scanned my body with blue, drunk eyes – my jeans were tight, digging into my stomach, making me feel fatter than I was. He flashed a small smile. He was about the same height as me, but he had a face like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. He had nice hands: tanned, with clean, short fingernails. I moved a bit closer and took one of them in mine, shook it once, said, “Hi”. He said “Hi” back and asked what I was drinking. I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, but I told him gin and tonic. Chrissy and Fred, by this point, were engaged in a hushed disagreement over something Fred had, or indeed hadn’t, done. Chrissy had told me she was fucking raging in the Uber on the way here while I’d rested my head against the cold window and murmured sympathy whenever she took a breath. I was letting my eyes go blurry – the streetlights and car brake lights were art. Fiery beacons in the darkness. I watched a cyclist gesture angrily at the car in front.

Max was ordering my drink, shouting over the violent bass of the music. Bar staff must need excellent hearing. He turned to me again, our faces close now, and asked how my day was. 

“It was fine,” I divulged. “How was yours?”

“It was a bit mental, to be honest. I work for a bank and there was some security issue. Hackers were trying to get into our system so everything was shut down. It was seriously like in a film when the lights all go off and an alarm starts going. Except the lights didn’t go out – ha ha – it was kinda wild though. We didn’t know what the fuck was happening.”

 I looked at him, said, “Wow, that does sound wild. Who was it? The hackers.”

He lifted the two drinks the barman had placed in front of him and passed one glass to me. The ice clinked satisfyingly and I took a sip. It was strong, a double, and cold on my throat. 

“Oh I don’t know. Russians probably.”

“So you’re in finance?”



“It’s pretty hard work. Long days. But I like the pay packet.” I pictured his bank account. Felt hot between my legs. “When I was at school I thought I wanted to be a rugby player. My brother’s doing that now – he’s very good.”

“Do you still play rugby?”

“Just for fun.”

My gin was almost gone. Only ice and a slice of lime remained: a receptacle for flavour and whatever particular bacteria it had picked up from the barman’s hands. I looked over Max’s shoulder to see Chrissy and Fred kissing, their hands exploring each other’s torsos. The music was too loud. I could feel my top lip grow damp with sweat I didn’t want Max to know was there. I suggested to him by way of a head tilt that we go outside. 

Outside the bar were tables of people talking and smoking and laughing as if the cost of living wasn’t rising with every moment. We found two stools and I put my glass of melting ice cubes on the table we were sharing with two women in floral calf-length dresses. Max asked me what I did. I told him I worked for a local newspaper, but I was thinking of leaving. Doing something else. He asked me why and I was evasive. It probably came across as coy. Sexy. And although that wasn’t my intention, I could feel his eyes on me and I liked it. 


The next day, I woke at 9 to the sound of my alarm. I’d made my alarm a song I liked in an attempt to make waking up a pleasurable process, but all it had done was make me hate the song. I hadn’t ordered another drink last night. I’d spoken to Max for an hour, found his boyish face and perfect skin appealing, but at 10 o’clock I’d gone back inside to find Chrissy, kiss her on the cheek, say I’m going home, speak to you tomorrow love, and exchanged numbers with Max. His tanned hands brushed mine as he took my phone to input his number.

I got out of bed, spooned ground coffee into a cafetière and filled it with hot water. I poured whole milk into my Nespresso milk frother and turned the cylindrical machine on. It whirred and spun the liquid until it steamed. And then it stopped, settling into a snowy mound.

I looked at my phone, scrolled through Instagram for a few minutes, liking a picture of a friend’s cat and another friend’s photo of themself covered in glitter at a music festival.

I found my way to Max’s name, to the 11 numbers that followed his name. That random sequence of digits somehow an intrinsic part of who he was. As much so as the few freckles that sprinkled his perfect nose or the fact that he liked watching Korean rom-coms on Netflix. An insight into him. That I could press those numbers and in moments have a portal to his mind was too much power, if you think about it. 


I needed air. I put a jacket over my t-shirt and leggings and pulled the front door closed behind me. Stopping at the bakery on the corner, I smiled at the young tattooed barista as I entered. I saw her at least three times a week and though I was always friendly, I never felt I’d managed the promotion to “treasured regular”, a title I knew many locals had and I wasn’t quite sure how to obtain. She once complimented my bag, which was from Zara and days later broke under the weight of the milk, wine and apple juice I’d filled it with, but all I managed to say in response was thank you. Too bright and loud in the small space. After ordering my coffee and requesting a pastry from the cabinet bulging with flaky viennoiserie, I busied myself on my phone. The woman next to me, probably in her 50s, was also waiting for her coffee while contentedly staring into space. 

Once I’d got to the park, I found a free bench and took my notebook and the greasy paper bag containing my croissant out of my tote. There was a pen tucked into the cover of the notebook and I plucked it out, opened a blank page and wrote some words I would later find wanting.

My phone vibrated like a pulse in my pocket so I pulled it out. 

“Hiya, you okay?” I asked Chrissy.

“Yeah babe, I’m alright – a bit tired. We got in at about two. Hey – Max liked you.”

A little jolt. “Really? I dunno.”

“No, he did. He said you were hot. And then he and Fred had a chat later about, well, him needing to get laid. Max. Not Fred – haha. And Fred told me when we got back because he was fucking wasted that Max is actually a virgin. Even though he’s really fit. Weird. Right? But I was thinking – this could be perfect?! You need to get over Luke – that cunt – and Max is fit.” She emphasised the last word like she was talking to a child.

“He’s a virgin? Huh. He doesn’t come across like a virgin.”

“No, I know!” I heard her flush the loo. ‘He told Fred he just hadn’t met the right person but, like, he’s now thinking he just needs to do it. I don’t know, maybe he’s nervous about it? Your expert attention could help.’ She laughed, in a friendly way. 

My phone buzzed in my hand. Two short, sharp vibrations that signalled a text’s arrival. I looked at it.

“I just got a text from him.”

“What, right now?”


“What does it say?”

“‘Great to meet you last night. I reckon we should meet up tonight. I’m only in London till tomorrow.’”

“Amazing. He lives in Paris, by the way.”

“Really? Why?”

“His work sent him out there. Are you going to go?”

“I don’t know. I guess so?”

“Yes girl!” Chrissy loved to live vicariously through her single friends, telling them how lucky they were not to be tied down. Minutes later, she’d have her legs entwined with her boyfriend’s and would be telling him the opposite. 


I pulled tight black jeans on and tucked a loose silk shirt in at the front, through which you could just make out the lacy bra I was wearing underneath. I wore pink lipstick and blended brown eye pencil into my lash line. I drank a cold glass of white wine while I worked on my face. I put my phone, my purse, my lipstick and my keys into my bag. I strapped tan sandals to my feet. I pulled the front door shut behind me and made my way to the tube station where a busker was strumming a guitar and singing an acoustic version of “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson. 

I met Max at a bar on Marylebone High Street. I stood next to him, where he perched on a bar stool, because there were no free seats. I clutched my glass of wine which grew steadily warmer and more acidic under my clammy embrace. I flirted with him. I touched his arm. I told him I want to be a writer, not a news reporter at a local paper that paid me £15K a year. I learned that he was paid £60K a year and he was still only 23. I noticed the way his face got a little bit ugly when he talked about money. I noticed it got even uglier when he talked about the girls his friends had fucked that weekend. I wondered if being a virgin made you unnaturally interested in other people’s sex lives. I enjoyed his smile. I enjoyed him telling me he liked really long hair on girls, even if he never actually said he liked my hair. I have long hair, and I ran my fingers through the ends. I felt excited when he suggested I come to Paris to visit him. I kissed him outside before we said goodbye. I noticed that it felt different to kiss someone who was the same height as you, not to need to lift your chin. I wondered if that was what it would feel like to kiss a girl. 


Me: Last night was fun. Are you on the train to Paris now? Bon Voyage! 

Him: Yeah, was up at 6 because I’ve got to get to a meeting at 10 at the office. So tired!! 

Me: Ah man, I’m tired and I got up at 9.

Him: Not going to work today? Your job sounds pretty easy!

Me: Ha. Well I had some time in lieu because I went to a load of council meetings in the evenings last week. Such fun.

Him: Cool. So I reckon you should come see me this weekend. Pick up where we left off last night…

Me: What come to Paris? Ahh, I don’t know! I’ve never been. It would be pretty cool.

Him: Yeah come! It’ll be fun. Would love to hang out more. 

Me: Yeah me too. I’ll have a look at train prices. 

I was lying on my bed, over the duvet, and the window was wide open creating a wind tunnel through the flat. The doors swung and creaked, as if many hurried ghosts were setting up for a get-together. I pulled my laptop onto my stomach and typed Eurostar into Google. I looked at the price of a train to Paris on Friday night, thinking of the £33 I had remaining of my overdraft. Flying wasn’t an option, the last time I’d been on a plane I went all hot and dizzy ten minutes into the flight and it felt as though my limbs had detached from the rest of me: were spreading along the plane floor like syrup. My molten legs getting in the way of the air stewards and people going to the toilet. A panic attack, the doctor later suggested. But now I needed to feel like my legs were attached so I could concentrate on perfecting my makeup on the train and watching Youtube videos of cats doing funny, affectionate things with their owners. I couldn’t afford the train ticket, but probably at some point in the future I would be able to. So, having been thinking about doing so for a while, I applied for a credit card. The very next day the shiny card was dropped through my letterbox and I bought a return ticket to Paris. 


“I get the feeling you’ve slept with loads of guys.”

We were sitting outside a café near the river, at a small round table. I had a glass of red wine in front of me and Max was drinking amaretti and coke. He let me try it and it was so sweet it coated my mouth in a sugary film. He wasn’t that into drinking, he’d said when we ordered, but he liked amaretti. 

I looked at him then, turning away from the view of the sunset over the Seine. 

“Oh, why?”

He laughed, but it had a mean edge. “I don’t know really. Kind of from Fred and Chrissy, but also you just seem quite… fun?”

I shifted in my seat. “Right. Well.” I considered what to say. Whether to give him a number. “I haven’t slept with that many people.”

“Yeah, yeah of course. My mates are probably in the hundreds.”

“I mean I’m happy to just tell you how many–”

“No, don’t tell me.” His face went dark for just a moment and then he smiled again. “It might put me off you.”


Walking back to his apartment – which was provided by his work and was all metal, plastic and sharp edges – I was tipsy from the wine and the chill of the late-night city air. He put his arm around me, felt my cold goose-pimpled flesh and took his jacket off for me to slip on. It smelt good. Like expensive cologne and warm, unwashed skin. Back in his room he kissed me hard, pushed my hips down onto the bed. I could tell he hadn’t changed the sheets for my arrival. I wound my arms around his neck while he lifted my top with his. His body, pressed against mine, felt hard and warm – I knew he worked out and the muscles in his forearms bulged when he pushed me further up the bed till my head was against the pillows. We kissed for a while. I love kissing – he’d said in a text I’d received on my way to Paris. I reached my hand down to his belt buckle and he pulled away from me.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah. Good.” He paused. Smiled a smile that was at once patronising and mean. “Have you had an STI check?”

I pulled away then. I felt a little nauseous.

“What? Er, yeah, not that recently but yeah.”

“But have you slept with anyone since your last check?”


He was silent for a moment. I could hear an ambulance outside the window, down on the street below. I glanced at Max and he looked angry. But also scared. He got up off the bed and started pulling his jeans on and I followed his lead, pulling the duvet over myself.

“Well, I guess I just think it’s pretty rude of you to try to sleep with me as well. Before you’ve been checked.”

I thought I was going to be sick – rage and shame building like bile. I pulled my t-shirt back on and went into the bathroom where I clutched the cold porcelain of the basin. My back prickled with sweat and I ran my wrists under the tap. I noticed he didn’t have any hand soap.

Five minutes went by, me in the bathroom, staring at my face in the mirror wondering what the fuck I was doing there. Then I heard him knock on the bathroom door, and with a voice that was small like an admonished child, he told me to come out, that he was sorry if he’d upset me. 


I downloaded Tinder as I sat in the waiting room of the sexual health clinic. I enjoyed the irony of it: a little counterproductive, you might say. The room was big, just off Victoria Road, near Pimlico, and air-conditioned so I didn’t need to take my coat off and place it on the grubby plastic chair next to me. By the time my name was called – this was a week after Paris – I’d pretty much shaken off the queasy shame of being potentially sexually unclean, but there is nothing like the questioning of a sexual health nurse with the energy of a head teacher to bring it all screaming back. Yes, no, no, yes, yes, no. When I’d been poked and probed and blood had been drawn, I woozily made my way back outside, into the roar of London – red buses, taxi cabs and police cars sped by and a homeless woman sitting outside Sainsbury’s in a sleeping bag looked up at me, pleading for change. I said sorry, no change, and walked on. When I’d returned from Paris I’d waited for my phone to light up with a text from Max, but once a week had passed by with nothing I drank a bottle of white wine with Chrissy at a pub round the corner from our office. I’d told her it all when I’d got back to London, but I’d told it like you tell a story: with smiles in the right places and pauses for dramatic effect. We were 21 years old and everything was a story. 


A couple of months later, I was walking over Vauxhall Bridge on my way to my new job. It was cold but sunny – the kind of autumnal day Richard Burton and Nora Ephron made famous – I stopped at Pret a Manger for a cappuccino and a bag of chocolate croissants for me and my two favourite colleagues. As I queued behind a very tall man in a dark blue suit who hadn’t taken his sunglasses off when he’d come inside, out of the sun, I felt my phone vibrate in my hand. I looked down, read the screen.  

Max: Hey! How are you? Sorry I haven’t been in touch for ages. It’s been mental at work. I’m back in London now though. Oh and I’m sorry about all that stuff before – think maybe I got the wrong end of the stick. Chrissy had a real go at me about it. Really soz! Anyway, want to get a hot choccy one night this week?

About the author:

Claire Maxwell is a book publicist and a writer. She’s been published in Telegraph, ELLE, Harpers Bazaar, Metro, HuffPost, Independent, inews, STORGY and more. She lives in Edinburgh, UK, with her husband, her cat Jeremy and her hundreds of books.

About Claire Maxwell

Claire Maxwell is a writer and book publicist. Her writing has appeared in publications like Telegraph, STORGY, Huffpost, Harper's Bazaar, ELLE, Hood Magazine. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner and cat.

Claire Maxwell is a writer and book publicist. Her writing has appeared in publications like Telegraph, STORGY, Huffpost, Harper's Bazaar, ELLE, Hood Magazine. She lives in Edinburgh with her partner and cat.

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