Working thirty seven and a half hours a week in an art supplies shop in the city, Clair cannot afford to live on her own. So she lives with a man bitter and tired and jaded enough to be a hundred years old. Daniel. Clair thinks he’s twenty eight, but she isn’t sure because she’s never asked. It’s not a friendly arrangement.
Clair answered an advert. They do not speak and have silently arranged to never be in the kitchen or the living room at the same time. If they ever find themselves in such a situation, they make sure to be out of each other’s company again as quickly and quietly as possible.
Their communication comes in little notes, tacked to kitchen walls and appliances. Most of the notes were there before Clair moved in. Since she moved in, there have been two:
Remember: do not leave the bin to get too full.
Please remove all washing up from draining board once dry. Thanks!
After work, Clair gets lost in the Tesco’s wine aisle. She knows nothing about geography. She is stranded somewhere between France and the New World, searching frantically for Argentina. She’s not even one hundred percent sure Argentina is a country, and not just a very famous city.
Clair does time-saving things.
She clips her toe nails, talking on the phone.
She rolls a cigarette, waiting in the queue for the basket till, shuffling the basket forwards with her feet.
Clair should not be doing this. She should be spreading the small remaining elements of her life out as thinly as possibly. Because between these things is nothing; a lurching stomach, memories. She should do her things one at a time.
As slowly as she can.
One by one.
Sometimes George would start crying, unexpectedly, quite dramatically, often in public. Clair wouldn’t know what to do. She’d feel embarrassed. She’d look around to see if anyone was watching. She’d feel very alone.
Sometimes, when there was nothing to say, George might say ‘Tell me a story.’ When he said this, Clair would go blank. Her head would empty. She’d search around in it, panicked, and there would be nothing.
She’d feel herself, sat on the bench outside Tesco’s or in that old pub in Salford or wherever, turning into an empty sketchbook page or a primed canvas. She knew that no matter what she told him, all he’d do was create his own version of it afterwards.
That was what they were. She realised this in the basket queue: they were ideas. She wasn’t a real person to George, and he wasn’t a real person to her, and especially, especially, that girl who’s name she will not say out loud or even in her head anymore – that girl who also painted and went away for a placement year in the States and then came back; that girl who George was ‘still in love with’ – was certainly an idea.
George is a romantic. He is his own construction. He seeks out other constructions and then further constructs them, or re-constructs them, or what do I even fucking mean? He never knows when a painting is finished. That is what I mean, I think. But still she feels, sadly, almost untouched by him. Nothing of her true self was discovered. He found only the most obvious parts of her, the ones he could sum up easily, to himself or to others; the parts she’d made up:
Clair dresses like something from a book.
Clair has a brilliant novel, half-finished.
She was an experience, a muse, most of all a fucking falsity.
One night, too, she became an approximation of a late-night porn clip she’d found, saved, hidden, on his computer. She was a person on her knees with his dick in her mouth, knowing for definite now that this was something he ‘liked’.
She’d felt jealous of the computer girl.
She’d wanted to compete.
When Clair received the announcement by email – not even by phone-call or letter or over a drink or a cup of tea, but by email – she decided to try and walk around the city and discover them together.
I should let you know, I am back together now with _____.
So she walked all the places that she went with him and all the places he mentioned from his past, and when they weren’t in any of those places, she made up some other places. She confronted them over and over again in her head. She interrupted them, mid-kiss, tapped him on the shoulder. But in the fantasy, she was only able to get that far, not to what happened next.
They just disentangle and turn round to face her and their faces are blanks.
Drinks with her ex-university friends, Kate and Simon.
They’re together now.
They hold hands and speak in code and occasionally ask her how she is.
They’ve never been more like strangers. Their faces and bodies and voices are strange, grotesque, finally to become horrifying when remembered in the locked toilet cubicle of the Kro bar. Clair doesn’t want to come out again unless it is something like six months into the future. She waits there, with her elbows making red marks in her knees, for that to happen.
She doesn’t want to admit that she is not a part of someone else, that he probably isn’t thinking about her, that she wasn’t strong or definite enough to make a dent in him.
She is alone, single, singular.
She is one times one.
Clair gets up and goes into the bathroom. She pisses. Blue light is glowing behind the curtains. She will be back at work four and a half hours from now. There are birds singing. She’s still almost drunk.
She goes into the kitchen. She turns on the tap and waits for the cold and fills a glass. She hopes the noise wakes him. Daniel. She finds his commanding red pen and square of post-it notes stacked neatly on the top of the fridge.
Please keep the snoring down in future, she writes. It is keeping me and my boyfriend awake. Thanks!
She walks down the hall, treading quietly, just on her toes.
She listens for any sound or movement or anything.
She sticks the post-it gently to his door.
Then she creeps back to her room and gets into bed and takes one of the extra pillows from the empty side and holds it to her as tightly as she can.