- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781784163587
- Imprint: Black Swan
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $24.00
Love Your Life
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.
– Someone I know is dead.
– Someone I know won the Lottery.
– I’m late for an appointment I’d forgotten about. Shit.
– I was witness to a crime and now I need to give very specific, detailed evidence about something I can’t remember. Shit.
– My doctor was looking back through my notes. (Why? Unclear.) And she found something. ‘I don’t want to worry you, but . . .’
– Someone sent me flowers and my neighbour took them in.
– A celebrity just tweeted something I need to see. Ooh. What?
But as I take out my phone, I see that it’s from Seth, the guy I had a date with last week. The one who said nothing, the whole evening. Nothing.
Most guys have the opposite problem. They drone on about themselves and their brilliant achievements and as you’re paying your half they ask as an afterthought, ‘What do you do, again?’ But Seth stared at me silently with his close-set eyes while I babbled nervously about the butternut-squash soup.
What does he have to say? Does he want another date? Yikes. My stomach cringes at the very thought, which is a sign. One of my major rules of life is: you should listen to your body. Your body is wise. Your body knows.
It’s fine. I’ll let him down gently. I’m pretty good at letting people down.
Hello Ava. After consideration I have decided our relationship is not something I can continue with.
Oh. Hmph. I see.
I eye-roll very deliberately towards the phone. Although I know he can’t see me, I have this very slight theory that you can somehow convey emotions through your phone. (I haven’t shared this theory with anyone, because most people are quite narrow-minded, I find. Even my best friends.)
You may have thought I was contacting you to ask for another date, in which case I’m sorry to have raised your hopes.
My hopes? My hopes? He should be so lucky.
You’ll want to know why.
What? No. I don’t, thanks very much.
I mean, I can guess.
No, scratch that. I can’t.
Why should I have to guess, anyway? Who wants to guess why someone doesn’t want to date them? It sounds like some awful TV game show called Is It My Bad Breath?
(It’s not my bad breath. Whatever it is, it’s not that.)
I’m afraid I cannot date anyone who thinks butternut-squash soup has a soul.
I stare at the phone, incensed. He has totally misrepresented me. I did not say butternut-squash soup has a soul. I simply said I thought we should be open-minded about the way the physical and spiritual interlink. Which I do. We should.
As if he can read my mind, Harold gives a sympathetic whine and rubs his nose against my leg. You see? If that doesn’t prove the world is interconnected, then what does?
I want to text back, ‘Sorry not to be closed-minded enough for your limited outlook on life.’ But that would indicate that I’ve read his texts, which I haven’t.
Well, OK, I have, but the point is, I’m deleting them from my mind. All gone. Seth who? Date? What?
I ring the doorbell, then let myself in with the key Nell’s given me. It’s what we all do, in case Nell’s having an episode. It’s been a while, but they can flare up viciously out of nowhere.
‘Nell?’ I call.
‘Hi!’ She appears in the hall, grinning widely, her hair pink and spiky.
‘You’ve gone back to pink!’ I exclaim. ‘Nice.’
Nell’s hair colour has changed about 106 times since we were at uni together, whereas mine hasn’t changed once. It’s still the same dark auburn, straight down to my shoulders, easy to swish into a ponytail.
Not that hair is really on my mind right now. I was distracted momentarily by Seth’s texts – but now that I’m inside the house, my throat is starting to tighten. My stomach feels heavy. I glance down at Harold and he turns his head inquiringly towards me in that adorable way he has, whereupon my eyes start to prickle. Oh God. Can I really do this?
Nell squats down and holds out her hands to Harold. ‘Ready for your holiday?’
Harold surveys her for a moment, then turns back to me, his liquid brown gaze fixing mine piteously.
If anyone thinks dogs can’t understand everything we say and do, then they’re wrong, because Harold knows. He’s trying to be brave, but he’s finding this as hard as I am.
‘I can’t take you to Italy, Harold,’ I say, swallowing hard. ‘I’ve told you that. But it won’t be long. I promise. A week. That’s all.’
His face is crunched into a heartbreaking ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ expression. His tail is gently thumping on the floor in an encouraging, hopeful way; as though I might suddenly change my mind, cancel my flight and take him out to play.
I’ve sworn I won’t cry, but tears are brimming as I gaze at his bright, intelligent face. My Harold. Best beagle in the world. Best dog in the world. Best person in the world.
‘Harold can’t wait to stay with me,’ says Nell firmly, ushering us both into the living room. ‘Can you, Harold?’
In answer, Harold screws up his face still more and gives a soul-shattering whine.
‘That dog should go on the stage,’ says Sarika, glancing up at him from her laptop with an amused look. Sarika isn’t really a dog-person – she admits as much – but she’s a Haroldperson. You can’t meet Harold and not be a Harold-person.
I found Harold at a rescue centre four years ago when he was just a puppy, and it was instant, utter devotion. He looked up at me, his eyes bright, his breath all snuffly and excited, and he seemed to be saying, ‘There you are! I knew you’d come!’
I’m not saying it was plain sailing. I’d never had a dog before. I’d longed for one as a child, but my parents were the types who keep vaguely promising, then it never happens. So I was a beginner at looking after a dog. And Harold was a beginner at being looked after. Because, believe me, he was not looked after by the people who abandoned him on the side of the A414. That was not looking after him. Just thinking about it makes me feel hot and bothered.
Anyway, it’s been a learning curve. When Harold first arrived at my flat, he had a freak-out. He was quite clearly saying, ‘What have I done, agreeing to live with you?’ And I had similar wobbles. There was quite a lot of howling, on both sides. But now I can’t imagine life without him. Yet here I am, planning to leave him for a week.
Maybe I should cancel. Yes. I should cancel.
‘Ava, stop stressing. You realize he’s trying to make you feel bad?’ says Nell. She turns to Harold and surveys him sternly. ‘Listen, mate, I don’t fall for your hammy act. Ava can go on holiday without you. It’s allowed. So stop giving her a hard time.’
For a long moment Harold and Nell lock eyes – two huge personalities confronting each other – then at last Harold subsides. He gives me another reproachful look, but pads over to the hearth rug by Nell’s chair and settles down.
OK, maybe I won’t cancel.
‘Do not apologize to him,’ says Nell to me. ‘And do not waste all week mooning over videos of Harold instead of writing your book.’
‘I won’t!’ I say defensively.
‘We’ll be fine,’ she reiterates. ‘Fine.’
I don’t have many life tips. But one of them is: if you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself, visit Nell. She’s tough in all the right places. She bounces back stupid thoughts at you. Her matter-of-fact attitude whips through you like a gust of sharp, cold air.
‘Here’s all his stuff.’ I dump my massive bag on the floor. ‘Bed, water bowl, blanket, food . . . Oh, his essential oils!’ I suddenly remember, taking the bottle from my bag. ‘I’ve made him a new blend, lavender and cedar wood. You just have to spritz his—’
‘Bedding.’ Nell cuts me off. ‘Ava, relax. You’ve already sent me five emails about this, remember?’ She takes the bottle from me and scrutinizes it briefly before putting it down. ‘That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask. Whatever happened to your aromatherapy qualification?’
‘Oh,’ I say, halted. ‘I’m still . . . doing it. Kind of.’
My mind flicks back to my aromatherapy books and bottles, shoved to one side in my kitchen. I’m doing an online course, and I must get back to it, because I’m definitely still interested in becoming a part-time aromatherapist.
‘Kind of?’ queries Nell.
‘It’s on pause. It’s just, with work, and writing this book . . . You know.’ I heave a sigh. ‘Life gets in the way.’
My job is writing pharmaceutical leaflets and online copy, which I can pretty much do in my sleep by now. I work for a drug company called Brakesons, based in Surrey. It’s fine, I like the firm and they let me work mostly from home. But I’m always trying to expand my horizons. If you ask me, life’s too short not to expand your horizons. You should always be thinking: ‘This is OK . . . but what else could I be doing?’
‘All the more reason to go to Italy and focus on writing your book,’ says Nell firmly. ‘Harold wants you to do that. Don’t you, Harold?’
In answer, Harold emits a soulful ‘wahoo!’ – sometimes he sounds just like a wolf – and Nell laughs. She ruffles Harold’s head with her strong stubby hand and says, ‘Idiot dog.’
We’ve been friends since Manchester uni. Nell, Sarika, Maud and I all met in the university choir and bonded on a tour to Bremen. Sarika had barely spoken a word till then; all we knew about her was that she was studying law and could sing a top C. But after a few drinks she revealed she was secretly sleeping with the conductor and their sex life was getting a bit ‘dark’. So now she wanted to dump him but also stay in the choir and what did we think? We spent a whole night drinking German beer and discussing it, while also trying to elicit what ‘dark’ meant, exactly.
(In the end, Nell crashed her glass down and said, ‘Just bloody tell us, OK?’)
(It was a bit gross. Not worth repeating, or even thinking about.)
Anyway, Sarika did dump the conductor, and she did stay in the choir. That was fourteen years ago now (how did that happen?) and we’re still friends. Of the four of us, only Sarika still sings in a choir – but then, she was always the most musical one. Plus she’s constantly on the lookout for a man whose interests chime with hers, and she reckons London choirs are a good place to start. Along with cycling clubs. She joins a new choir every year, and switches cycling clubs every six months, and there’s been a pretty good yield of guys.
I mean, three serious possibilities in two years. Not bad, for London.
We all live near each other in north London, and even though our lives are different in a lot of ways, we’re closer than ever. We’ve been on a few rollercoasters, these last few years. We’ve shrieked and clutched each other’s hands, both literally and . . . whatsit.
Great. I’m going on a week-long writing course tomorrow and I don’t know what the opposite of ‘literally’ is.
‘What’s the opposite of “literally”?’ I ask Sarika, but she’s tapping intently at her laptop, her dark shiny hair swishing the keys. She’s often to be found tapping intently at her laptop, Sarika, even when she’s round at Nell’s. (We tend to gather at Nell’s place.)
‘No smokers,’ Sarika mutters, then presses a key and peers closely at her screen.
‘What?’ I stare at her. ‘Is that work?’
‘New dating site,’ she says.
‘Ooh, which one?’ I ask with interest. Sarika has more cash than any of us, being a lawyer, so she’s the one who can afford to join the expensive dating sites and then report back.
‘No psychics,’ replies Sarika absently and presses another key, then looks up. ‘It’s called Meet You. Costs an arm and a leg. But then you get what you pay for.’
‘“No psychics”?’ echoes Nell sceptically. ‘How many psychics have you dated, exactly?’
‘One,’ says Sarika, swivelling towards her. ‘And that was more than enough. I told you about him. The one who reckoned he knew what I really liked in bed and we argued about it and I said, “Whose body is it anyway?” and he said, “It’s for both of us to enjoy.”’
‘Oh, him,’ says Nell, light dawning in her eyes. ‘I didn’t realize he was a psychic, I thought he was an arsehole. Is there a “no arseholes” filter?’
‘Wouldn’t work,’ says Sarika regretfully. ‘No one thinks they’re an arsehole.’ She turns back and taps at her keyboard again. ‘No magicians,’ she types briskly. ‘No dancers . . . What about choreographers?’
‘What’s wrong with dancers?’ objects Nell. ‘They’re fit.’
‘Just don’t fancy it,’ says Sarika, shrugging vaguely. ‘He’d be out every night, dancing. We should keep the same hours. No oil-rig workers,’ she adds as an afterthought, typing again.
‘How does this site work?’ I say, baffled.
‘It starts with all your deal-breakers,’ replies Nell. ‘It shouldn’t be called Meet You, it should be called Sod Off You. And You. And You.’
‘You’re making it sound really negative,’ protests Sarika. ‘It’s not about telling people to sod off, it’s about being superspecific, so you won’t waste time looking at unsuitable people. You keep honing your target match until you’ve got the perfect shortlist.’
‘Let me see.’ I head round the sofa to look over her shoulder. The screen of her laptop is filled with male faces, and I blink at them. They all look nice to me. The guy with the stubble in the right-hand corner looks particularly cute. His expression says, ‘Pick me! I’ll be kind to you!’
‘He looks sweet.’ I point at him.
‘Maybe. OK, what next?’ Sarika consults a typed list on her phone. ‘No vegetarians.’
‘What?’ I stare at her in shock. ‘No vegetarians? What are you saying? Sarika, how can you be so narrow-minded? Your sister’s vegetarian! I’m vegetarian!’
‘I know,’ she says equably. ‘But I don’t want to date my sister. Or you. Sorry, babe. You know I love your halloumi crumble.’ She reaches out an arm to squeeze my waist affectionately. ‘But I want someone I can roast a chicken with.’ She clicks on ‘Filters’ and a box appears with four headings: Yes Please! Don’t Mind, Not Ideal and Deal-breaker.
‘Deal-breaker,’ says Sarika firmly, starting to type ‘Vegetarian’ in the box. After two letters, the word Vegetarian auto-fills and she clicks on it.
‘You can’t rule out all vegetarians,’ I say in utter horror. ‘It’s prejudiced. It’s . . . is it even legal?’
‘Ava, lighten up!’ retorts Sarika. ‘Now watch. This bit is fun. “Apply filter”.’
As she clicks, the photos on the screen start to shimmer. Then, one by one, big red crosses appear in front of faces, scattered over the screen. I glance at the cute guy – and feel a nasty lurch. There’s a cross in front of his face. He looks as though he’s been sentenced to execution.
‘What’s going on?’ I demand anxiously. ‘What is this?’
‘It’s called “Last Chance”,’ explains Sarika. ‘I can reprieve any of them by clicking on them.’
‘Reprieve him!’ I say, pointing to my favourite. ‘Reprieve him!’
‘Ava, you don’t know anything about him,’ says Sarika, rolling her eyes.
‘He looks nice!’
‘But he’s vegetarian,’ says Sarika, and presses ‘Done’.
The screen shimmers again and all the guys with crossedout faces disappear. The remaining guys swirl around the screen, and then assemble again in neat rows of photos, with new ones taking the place of the vanished.
‘Great,’ says Sarika with satisfaction. ‘I’m getting somewhere.’
I stare at the screen, slightly traumatized by this culling process.
‘It’s brutal,’ I say. ‘It’s heartless.’
‘Better than swiping,’ puts in Nell.
‘Exactly!’ Sarika nods. ‘It’s scientific. There are more than eight hundred possible filters on the site. Height, job, habits, location, political views, education . . . The algorithms were developed at NASA, apparently. You can process five hundred guys in, like, no time.’ She consults her list again. ‘Right, on to the next. No one over six foot three.’ She starts typing again. ‘I’ve tried super-tall. Doesn’t work with me.’
She presses ‘apply filter’, three red crosses appear, and within seconds a new selection of guys is gazing out from the screen.
‘Apparently one woman kept on applying filters until there was only one guy left on the screen, and she contacted him and they’re still together,’ Sarika adds, scrolling down the list. ‘That’s your ideal.’
OK. Don’t panic. Don’t panic. I’ve got 5 minutes 52 seconds before my basket expires.
Jake lay on top of his board, feeling the swells move beneath him, like the air moving in and out of his lungs, like the blood surging through the four chambers of his stubbornly beating heart.
Johnny Casey launched into a fit of energetic coughing – a bit of bread down the wrong way.
There they go, at the beginning of it all, their younger selves, walking through the dark, winter streets of Sheffield: Daniel Lawrence and Alison Connor.
Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it.