She had to break up with him; he was just too big. His long limbs sprawled across her double bed taking up almost every inch of space, leaving her teetering on the edge; his enormous feet stuck out from under the duvet and his enormous shoes seemed to take up most of the space on her bedroom floor; his parka jacket dwarfed the chair that he’d slung it over when they stumbled in drunk last night at the end of their fifth date.
She’d slept with him four times already, including twice last night. It was easy to forget how irresistibly sexy she found him as she lay there listening to his loud, animal snore, a snore she was afraid her grumpy upstairs neighbour would be down to complain about any minute now. She could do with something to smother the noise – his parka, maybe?
In an age of limitless dating options, how much time should you give someone before you decide to call it a day? There were definitely some things she liked about him: He made her laugh all the time. She loved his observations about London, how he compared it to his beloved hometown of Manchester, complaining that for all the ‘fancy bakeries’ in Soho, he couldn’t find an Eccles cake for love nor money. He was passionate about lots of things – film, books and music. He talked constantly about bands she’d never heard of and recommended albums he thought she would love. She daren’t tell him that she mainly listened to Radio 2 and owned an album by Mumford & Sons, who he declared he couldn’t stand.
That was another reason she had to call it off – he would find out soon enough. Not just about the Mumford & Sons album, but about the fact that she had inadvertently presented herself as a little more alternative than she really was. She had told him, for instance, that she ‘loved music festivals’, when in fact she had only been to Reading once a few years ago, omitting to mention that she and her best friend Rosie actually left before the evening because the toilets were gross and they’d finally admitted to one another that they didn’t want to miss the X Factor final.
He was just a little too loud. Yes, she had complained that her last boyfriend was too quiet (He was! She could never eat anything in front of Daniel without worrying that he could hear her munching away because he said so little and barely seemed to breathe at all.) She could hear Rosie chiding her in her head for being too picky. He was so loud, and so – well, Northern. Oh my God, she thought, I’ve turned into an awful London snob. Of course he wasn’t too Northern. He just wasn’t quite right.
She looked down at him again, at his big handsome face. ‘I’ll just tell him I need more space, more time to myself’, she thought, rehearsing the words in her head. ‘You’re lovely – so lovely – it’s just that my job is taking up a lot of headspace and I just don’t have time for a serious relationship right now.’
He made a loud nasal sound, almost a moo, turned over and opened his eyes. He smiled his big, sexy smile.
That was another thing – she hated that he called her that! At least, she wanted to. It offended every feminist bone in her body, but it was also kind of endearing. He’d said it last night, when he’d clapped his giant hands around her head and lifted her lips to his; ‘Kiss me, doll’.
‘Good morning.’ She ruffled his hair. She wasn’t looking forward to this. It was going to be like wounding a big friendly animal. ‘Cup of tea?’
‘Now you’re talking. Plenty of milk and two sugars, please.’
Sugar? She didn’t know anyone who took sugar in their tea, apart from her Great Aunty Beryl. She didn’t know if she even had any sugar in the flat, other than some Muscovado. Could you put that in tea? Would he notice?
She couldn’t help but pick up his parka on the way out. It weighed a tonne and it took all her strength to heave it up onto a coat hook in the hall.
She loved her tiny flat, decorated exactly as she liked it in dusky hues. She loved her time in the morning, getting ready, listening to Zoe Ball as she packed the leftovers from last night’s dinner into a Tupperware box before heading off to work. Of course, she wasn’t going into the office today, very few of them were; the briefing had gone out last night to everyone at Bright Books, telling them to work from home if possible because of the growing threat of coronavirus. Every news bulletin made it both more surreal and more real.
She wanted him to go soon, so that she could be alone. Mornings were her favourite time of day. Yes, she was a morning person, and yes, it gave her that special kind of smugness that morning people have.
‘You what, mate?’ he bellowed from the other room, interrupting her smug serenity. ‘You’re kidding me? You’re fucking kidding me!’
That was another thing: he swore too often and too loudly. Was that a good enough reason to call it off with someone?
‘You poor sod. This is unbelievable. Of course it’s no problem, mate, I just can’t fucking believe this. It’s like bloody Armageddon. Yep. Okay mate. Keep your pecker up. Bye.’
He stomped into the room, naked except for her pale pink dressing gown which didn’t leave much to the imagination. She raised an eyebrow.
‘Something the matter?’
‘You’re not gonna believe this.’ He opened the fridge and took out a yoghurt as if he lived there, rather than this being his second (and last) visit. ‘That was Barney. Because his asthma is so bad, the doctor has rung him and told him he’s got to self-isolate!’
‘Will you have to stay indoors with him?’ Barney was his flat-mate, an old school friend who’d agreed to let him stay on his sofa while he found his (huge) feet in London.
‘Me? No, doll. I can’t go back there. He can’t have anyone there who could bring this virus back. I can’t believe this is happening.’ He put his arms around her waist, just in time to spot her dropping the Muscovado into his tea. ‘What the fuck is that?!’ he laughed.
‘I’m sorry’, she said, furrowing her brow, ‘It’s the only sugar I have’.
He took a big slurp. ‘No worries. Tastes good to me.’
‘So, where are you going to stay then?’ Surely he had other friends in London?
‘I’m gonna head back up North to my parents’ place. I’ve still got all my work gear with me, so I’ll just get a train up today. I’ll be out of your lovely hair before you know it.’
‘No need to rush off,’ she said, relieved. ‘I’ll just jump in the shower. I would say “Help yourself to something to eat”, but it’s a bit late for that.’
He’d already polished off the yoghurt.
She was enjoying the feeling of rinsing the conditioner out of her hair, eyes closed, when he shouted ‘Knock knock!’ and barged into the bathroom. ‘Mind if I slip out of this robe and join you?’ he asked in a silly voice.
How could she resist? Really, if they had to part company, this would at least be a nice way to say goodbye.
It wasn’t until they’d disentangled themselves from one another in bed, towels on the floor beside them, that he dropped the bombshell.
‘Listen, doll, I’m really sorry to ask, but I spoke to my mum before, and she’s only just got back from her Art and Gin tour of Florence.’
She rolled over to face him, still on a high. ‘Sorry, what exactly is an Art and Gin tour?’
‘She’s in an art group and they’re always jetting off to fancy locations with some flimsy pretence about culture. As far as I can tell, it’s an excuse for a piss-up. Anyway, can you believe it, she’s got to self-isolate as well!’
‘Oh no. A friend of mine just got back from Austria and had to do the same thing.’
He stroked her hair behind her ear. ‘Listen – I hate to ask – but would you mind if I stayed here, just for the next five days, until she’s out of isolation?’
‘Five days?’ Her mind reeled. ‘No way’, she wanted to say. ‘I need my space back, and I was about to break up with you!’
But instead she smiled and asked him about his other options, each of which he ruled out for various reasons: his other London friends had a new-born baby; his friends in Manchester had very little room or kids or health conditions or – whether it was his big brown eyes, the fact that she felt sorry for him, or the fact that she still hadn’t recovered from the amazing sex, she found herself agreeing.
Five days wasn’t much time in the greater scheme of things, was it?
On day one they both made vain attempts to work whilst watching the news, which got scarier by the second. They took it in turns to make cups of tea; the Muscovado sugar was nearly gone already. She sat with her legs tucked up under her in a chair. He sat on the sofa opposite, taking up the whole thing. He wore glasses which she hadn’t seen him in before, and which made him look ridiculously handsome.
That evening she said she’d make them dinner, something simple. However, as she talked through the different options in Jamie’s Half-Hour Wonders, it became apparent that their taste in food was very different. Every time she mentioned something spicy, he scrunched his nose up.
‘I don’t really like hot food. Sorry, doll. How about something simple like a nice chicken pie?’
Chicken pie? She was trying not to be a snob, but how could she ever consider dating someone who didn’t like spicy food? And anyway, wasn’t the famous “curry mile” in Manchester? Had he never been?
‘Er – I don’t have any chicken I’m afraid. How about noodles with king prawns? I’ve got some in the freezer and I’ll go easy on the chilli.’
He scrunched his nose up again. ‘I don’t really like fish, either. Sorry, I’m really fussy.’
‘You don’t like fish?’
‘Well, I like fish finger sandwiches, but that’s about it.’
She was speechless. She poured them both a large glass of much-needed Chardonnay and began to go through her freezer, which was full of carefully ordered batch-cooked meals.
She took a deep breath. ‘Lasagne?’
‘Now you’re talking!’
She didn’t mention the fact that it was a veggie lasagne. It was a delicious Delia recipe and if he didn’t like that, he pretty much deserved to be kicked out on the street.
Luckily, he did like it and was very complimentary. They sat in front of the news as they ate. She was dressed in the red top and jeans that she’d worn on their first date and which he said he liked, even though she’d far rather have been wearing her joggers and hoodie. The more news she watched, the more worried she became. She rang her parents to make sure they were okay and were taking the necessary precautions. Then she rang her Great Aunty Beryl who informed her that she’d stocked up on whiskey and shortbread.
‘It will be okay, won’t it?’ she asked him. She didn’t want to let her anxiety get the better of her, but the more she watched or read, the more worried she became.
‘Hey, it’s gonna be fine.’ He looked straight into her eyes. ‘I know what you need. Let’s listen to something chilled. Alexa’, he said to the robot, ‘Play Boards of Canada.’
She let the electronic sounds wash over her, the background soundscapes of the sea calm her, as he lay down next to her and rubbed her neck and her shoulders and told her how amazing she was.
On day two she woke up at six a.m., disturbed by his snoring. She groaned but it didn’t wake him, and he slumbered on. That was the thing about morning people – they were only morning people because they were hopeless at sleeping and incapable of lie-ins. This morning, the appeal of his good looks was cancelled out by the fact that his mouth hung open and his breath stank. He would have to go out and buy a toothbrush soon. And some pants! She suddenly realised he must only have one pair of pants; it made her feel queasy and turned on at the same time.
That day she had a spreadsheet to update for work, a boring task but one that required her to concentrate. She sat tapping at her computer, but he seemed to have given up on the idea of work altogether and instead lay on the floor listening to music on his giant headphones. The noise of the beat rang out. God knows what damage he was doing to his ears. She tried telling him to turn it down, but he couldn’t hear anything so she threw a cushion at him instead. That seemed to do the trick.
At one point during the morning (she had lost track of time), he jumped to his feet, almost knocking her house plant over in the process. ‘Where’s your music collection? I can’t believe I haven’t looked at it yet! I love looking through people’s music collections.’
Oh dear. She had been hoping to keep the full extent of her taste in music hidden from him during these five days.
‘It’s not much of a collection. Here, have another party ring.’ (They’d had to dig deep into her kitchen cupboards for supplies). Her attempt at distraction failed.
‘It must be here somewhere’, he said, beginning to scan her shelves.
‘Most of it’s on my Spotify account now, so it’s only a few CDs’-
‘Aha- what have we here?’ Honestly, he was so nosey. Most people wouldn’t dare go rifling through other people’s stuff uninvited. She really was going to have to call the whole thing off once this weird situation drew to a close. He held a CD-shaped folder aloft and began to unzip it. She braced herself for his reaction. ‘Boyzone?’
‘Call it a guilty pleasure.’
‘Not sure you can get much pleasure out of that. And what’s this – Steps? You’re having a laugh aren’t you?’
‘We used to like listening to them at Uni,’ she muttered.
‘At last, some Blondie – but a “Best Of”? Who buys “Best-Of”s? And you don’t really need a “Best Of Blondie”, all of their albums are classics!’
And so it continued, from Bon Jovi through to Kylie Minogue and The Greatest Love Songs of the 90s. He shook his head. She laughed it off and gave her excuses for every single one. And then, of course, he stumbled across the Mumford & Sons album.
‘How could you?’ he said. ‘Here, come and lie down next to me.’ He clapped his giant headphones over her ears and started playing her a noisy band, reverb guitars blasting out at her from the first bar.
‘It’s just a noise’, she wanted to say, realising that this would make her sound like her mum. She listened for as long as she could stand it, overly conscious of her reaction, nodding along, trying to look nonchalant, before it all got too much. She tore the headphones off her head.
‘Okay, so I may not like your so-called “cool” music and yes, my favourite album is Abba Gold (and yes, I know that’s a “Best Of”!), and no, I haven’t heard of sodding Pavement, and it may come as a surprise to you to hear that I don’t bloody care if I never listen to them! I like Abba, okay? If we had carried on dating for the next few weeks instead of you bloody moving in with me, I could’ve kept up the illusion for a bit longer!’
She stormed out and went into the bedroom. Why had she let him get to her? She was happy enough in who she was, wasn’t she? She loved books and had an interesting job and great friends and she enjoyed the music she enjoyed. What was so wrong with that?
There was a knock at the door. He crept into the room, insomuch as he could ever creep.
‘I’m sorry, doll, I didn’t mean to take the mick. Abba Gold is a stonking album.’ He sat down next to her. ‘Can I offer you a party ring?’ He held out a pink and white one and she smiled – her favourite.
On day three, they realised after breakfast that they had run out of supplies. They watched footage of empty shelves on BBC Breakfast and witnessed an interview with a man who proudly declared that he had just bought over three hundred toilet rolls.
‘I’ll go,’ he said.
‘No, I’ll go.’
‘There’s no point both of us going. And I’m the bloke. I should do it. It’s fine. I won’t be long. I’ll just get enough food for a few days.’
She wanted to protest on feminist grounds (really, it was ridiculous to say the man should go), but he was already zipping up his parka.
‘You should cover your mouth and nose,’ she said. ‘Here.’ She handed him one of her scarves to wear. It was pretty with a purple and green floral pattern.
‘Are you kidding?’
‘If you don’t wear it, I’m coming with you.’
‘Alright then.’ He relented and let her wrap it around his face. He looked ridiculous, but at least he’d be safer that way.
While he was gone, she picked up her diary to check she’d cancelled or postponed everything she needed to that week. How much time would pass, she wondered, before she could see Rosie and the girls for dinner and cocktails again? What would happen in the meantime? She noticed a marker against tomorrow’s date and sighed. She texted him:
‘Please could you pick up some sanitary towels?’
‘Sure.’ Then, a few minutes later, ‘With or without wings??’
She smiled. ‘With, of course.’
He was gone for nearly two hours. She resisted the urge to text again and ask if he was okay, but was just about to do so when he burst through the door holding several large shopping bags.
‘Crikey, it’s carnage out there! Half the shelves were empty in Sainsbury’s, so I ended up walking to Morrisons instead.’ His face was sweating.
She felt a rush of gratitude and something else – what was that? ‘That’s miles away!’
He unpacked tins of tomatoes, a bag of potatoes, two packets of biscuits, three bottles of wine, a box of grapes, and a bag of Muscovado sugar. And then, a whole chicken.
‘I thought I’d make dinner tonight. Roast chicken okay?’
She smiled. ‘Of course it is.’
She sat in the bedroom while he cooked, listening to the pans clanging and enjoying the delicious cooking smells. He had the radio on, and she noticed he hadn’t changed it from Radio 2. He was singing along in his best gravelly voice to ‘We Have All the Time in The World’ on the station’s self-isolation themed playlist. She decided to ring Rosie for a video-chat. Her friend couldn’t believe he was staying with her.
‘That’s bizarre!’ Rosie raised her eyebrows, her face animated as always. It was so good to see her. ‘How are you feeling about it? I thought you were getting cold feet about him?’
‘I was– I mean, I’m not sure to be honest, Rose. He’s kind of a one-off.’ A pan clanged loudly in the background. ‘He’s definitely not my usual type. But he’s growing on me.’
‘Aah, not started finding his faults yet?’
‘Well, he’s got plenty of them, but he’s also got lots of good qualities, and he may turn out to be quite a good cook.’
The kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it and it took them most of the evening to wash up, but the meal was delicious. He’d even gone to the trouble of making cauliflower cheese and Yorkshire puddings. They were absolutely stuffed and ended up falling into bed early without even watching the ten’o’clock news.
On day four, the number of cases jumped up again, and they spent most of the time glued to the TV, half-heartedly checking emails every so often. And then his phone rang. It was his mum, saying that his dad was in bed with a fever and she was worried about him. His face creased as he tried to reassure her. ‘It’ll be fine, Mum. I’ll be up tomorrow and I’ll help you take care of him. Remember that one Christmas when he got the flu really badly and all he would drink was Lucozade and we were really worried about him until he started getting better and ate all the Quality Streets? Yeah? Well he’ll be right as rain again soon, I promise.’
Afterwards, she hugged him and told him not to worry, that the recovery rates were encouraging. She asked him more about what his dad was like and he told her all about him: how he’d been a Union rep for years until he’d retired, how he was a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn and couldn’t stand Nigel Farage.
‘I think we’d get on well.’
That night he suggested they watch a film. She’d mainly heard him talk about arty films, waxing lyrical about Terrence Malick and Lars von Trier, so she was surprised when he suggested watching The Lion King on Netflix.
‘I love this film’, he said, as they settled down to watch it with a bowl of popcorn.
She snuggled up to him, comfy in her joggers and hoodie. She must have fallen asleep because when she woke up, she was back in bed.
The next morning, they lazed around in bed for as long as possible before he had to get up to catch his train. She made them a brunch of blueberry pancakes and they listened to ‘Pop Master’ on Radio 2, which had become their daily tradition. An intro came on and they both shouted ‘Waterloo!’ at once, with their mouths full. She packed him a sandwich of leftover roast chicken and mayonnaise for the train in a Tupperware box.
‘Are you sure you should be going home? I’m worried that you might catch it.’
‘It’s okay, I’ll be fine. I want to be there to help them. Thank you so much for letting me stay, Soph.’ He kissed her goodbye. ‘I’ll ring you as soon as I get there.’
‘Thank you for staying’, she said, as she zipped his parka up for him.
After he left, the flat felt empty. She resisted the urge to tidy up and instead curled up on the sofa. She put her headphones on and selected a Pavement album to listen to on Spotify. She wondered how much time would pass before she saw him again because she knew, without question, that she would.
This is the first proper short story that Katy has written. She’s recently started writing short satirical articles for her new website, The Shrew. She’s enjoying writing short things, as she’s too busy to finish her novel.