QUARTER PAST THREE | Vanessa Browne shares a short story about keeping your heart open, even in the face of loss.
by Vanessa Browne
‘Sorry, I know this is kind of a weird time,’ he says, grinning at me over my mojito. ‘I freelance, which basically means I never stop working, and I’ve got a meeting at half six, and . . . I don’t know, I just really liked your profile. You seemed really funny, so when you matched with me, I thought, no time like the present. I don’t do this very often. But, I guess, that’s what I would say if I did do this often!’
My phone flashes, as a WhatsApp notification pings onto the screen. Probably from Mum. At the top, the time reads ‘15:15’. I flip it over quickly, before I’m tempted to read it.
Adriaan is eager. More eager than I like. He isn’t playing it cool, at all. If my friend Cass were here, she’d say he was ‘too nice’. Read: boring. I twirl mint and sip my drink, biting down on the striped paper straw, which is already starting to soften. I can sense that I’m not being responsive enough. I try a smile and say, ‘No, it’s not weird at all, I’ve been on much weirder dates than this.’ Which, for the record, is true. Six months ago, a guy I matched with took me to a leather museum. A leather museum. He said it was because he loved expensive shoes, and he wanted to take me somewhere different. Two hours of getting ready, to look at cow hides all afternoon.
‘Oh, yeah?’ That grin again. ‘Like what? Come on, what’s the weirdest date you’ve been on with someone from an app?’
I pause for a moment, then sigh. ‘Nothing crazy, to be honest. Not that I can remember right now.’ His face falls slightly, only for a moment.
What am I doing here?
I couldn’t handle the silence anymore. Not literal silence. No, my house has been a human conveyor belt for the past three weeks. Mum sent a big WhatsApp message to almost everyone on her contacts list – all our family in Ghana, her church singing band, aunties, uncles, cousins, even some work colleagues. How did people make death announcements before smartphones?
When guests come over, Mum rushes me to the kitchen to bring them water. They accept and wait expectantly for her to begin. Mostly in Twi, with snatches of English. Boxing Day. Midnight. Asthma attack. Ambulance. Respiratory Failure. Unprecedented. When she isn’t telling it in person, she’s recounting it down the phone. I secretly started timing her, and she’s got it down to three minutes, which is quite impressive.
In a house that’s never empty, silence roars in my head all day. Because of the voice that’s missing. That gap of time where Daniel would have spoken, any time he would have slipped in a joke, or had some smart response, or said ‘bless you’ after someone sneezed. It bellows and bounces off the walls, almost blowing my ear drums out.
Then last night, I got this message saying:
Hi 🙂 how’s your week been? I know this is kind of last minute, but would you happen to be around tomorrow afternoon for lunch? I’m out of London for the rest of the month after that, but it would be cool to meet beforehand. No prob if not x
I said yes. Four days of compassionate leave, ten more days of paid leave, then finally a notice of resignation and a letter from my GP meant that I had nothing but time.
“In a house that’s never empty, silence roars in my head all day.”
Sometimes I stay when the visitors come, but most of the time I don’t. Usually, it’s enough to shake hands and hand out refreshments, then slip away, usually to his room. I’ve been sleeping there for the past week, which I know is kind of unhinged. I lie on his single bed, breathing in the scent of cheap cologne and sweaty trainers. I wring out the empty Celebrations wrappers littered on his floor and bedside table. I re-read the same two bent pages of the book on his desk, the last two he must have touched, wondering what might have made him laugh, guessing what he would have been thinking, before placing it back precisely as I found it. On his black satin pillowcase (the one I bought him when he decided to start twisting his hair), my tears leave uncomfortable, filmy damp patches, instead of being absorbed properly.
I stare at the pictures from his graduation and of Mary, his girlfriend, scattered across his noticeboard. She’s in pieces. The last conversation we had was about her. I was cross-legged on his floor, and he was lying on his front on the mattress above me, his forearms propped up and his chin digging into his palm. ‘I don’t really know if I believe in all this stuff about “the one”,’ he said, smirking, ‘but if I did, she’d be it. I think this is it. Like, how can one person do that? Someone that didn’t exist two years ago.’ Go figure he’d meet his soulmate in first year. He always was an overachiever. I used to be jealous of them, but now it’s all so tragic. A cruel cosmic joke.
This morning, I stared at myself in the full-length mirror that the seamstress propped up by her sofa, to inspect myself after the final alterations. My first funeral outfit. The top and skirt fit beautifully, but I looked ashen and bewildered against the black. In our hallway mirror, I peered at myself again before I left for the restaurant. A mysterious stranger peered back in a burgundy satin cami, black jeans and heeled leather boots. Her waist-length twists were swept to the side, her cat-eye was perfect. She looked so pretty, and I remember wishing I knew her, willing myself to be that girl.
Adriaan chatters away, telling me unrequested details about his life. He’s 27. His dad is Ghanaian and his mum’s from Holland, where he was born before moving to London when he was eight. He speaks English and Dutch, and he’s trying to learn Ga. He’s a freelance photographer and videographer. He lived and worked in Berlin last year. He has caramel skin and deep brown eyes. When he smiles, small creases (dimples?) wink at me from under his cheekbones. Adriaan is undeniably handsome. He’s surely aware of this. To his credit, he didn’t take himself too seriously in his profile, no posing or squinting or staring into the distance. Twenty-one days and fourteen hours ago, if this guy had asked me on a lunch date, I would have eagerly sent pictures of him into different group chats and thought more about what I was saying to him. But it’s like I can’t quite connect, like an old-school radio; everything’s drowned out by fuzzy interference. I respond seconds too late, and blink frequently, as if trying to correct double vision. One, excruciating moment, I actually think I’m going to cry when he mentions his football rivalry with his brother.
I’m wooden, almost aloof as he continues to probe about my job, likes and dislikes. I tell him half-truths, which slip out surprisingly easily. I work for an NGO, but I’ve taken some leave that I rolled over from last year, because I didn’t have a very relaxing Christmas holiday. His meeting is about a potential commission for ‘a baby formula advert. Not the most inspired project,’ his cheeriness properly wanes for the first time as he continues, ‘but commercial ads pay the best. I just didn’t picture myself selling out at this stage.’
‘The rhetoric around selling out is hypocritical, if you ask me,’ I say, shrugging. ‘Our generation makes this huge deal about integrity, but we go on these elaborate meals, travel multiple times a year, and tap out our feelings on smartphones made by slave labour. The last thing we should be doing is ridiculing others for their artistic choices.’
He blinks as he takes this in, slightly reeling at the first real opinion I’ve had all afternoon – one that happens to be incredibly rude, which is also sort of defending him? For the first time all afternoon, I feel a lick of remorse. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say lamely. ‘I studied International Development. I still go into seminar mode, sometimes.’ He’s warm and brushes it off good-naturedly. ‘Maybe next time we won’t go somewhere so high brow, I’ll take you to a protest or something,’ he teases.
I hear a peculiar sound, and realise it’s coming out of my mouth. The corners of my lips stretch upwards and my jaw separates. My chest heaves. Realising I’m laughing, a wave of confusion washes over me. Should I be giggling with a stranger at a bar, two weeks before my brother’s funeral? What kind of sister am I? What kind of person? Suddenly, my vision blurs. I hurriedly excuse myself to the ladies’ room and rush into a cubicle.
Sitting on a closed toilet, I inhale sharply to stop the flow of tears. Maybe I should stay here until he takes the hint and leaves. Or text him saying it isn’t going to work out, make some excuse about a recent ex I’m not over. I could tell him the truth: that my little brother is dead, I quit my job and I met him because I needed a distraction. Who’d argue with that? I stare at my phone, turning it over in my palm. I should call someone, but no one knows I’m here, not even Cass. I wanted to be anonymous for a while, without concern or condolences floating over my head.
Adriaan looks slightly bemused as I walk back in, sans eyeliner. ‘Look,’ he says kindly, ‘I can tell your mind’s somewhere else. It’s OK if you want to cut things short – I’ll get the bill and you can go.’
My jaw tightens. ‘I’m sorry. I thought I’d be up to this but I – I’ve had a bad week.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I know what that’s like, you don’t have to explain. I’ll tell you what, I’m parked around the corner, and I’ve got some time to kill now. Do you want a lift home, or to a station? Or if you want, I’ll call you an Uber?’
It’s awful, when you know you’re behaving badly, and people are understanding. Ever since the announcement, everyone in my life has been tripping over themselves to accommodate me. Managers, friends, colleagues, cousins, acquaintances. I feel pitiful, being fussed over like this, like a lost child instead of a grown woman.
‘No, no, don’t worry about it, I’ll make my own way home. Honestly, I don’t live too far from here.’
‘OK, no problem, I’ll just cancel our table.’ He strolls over to the hostess.
It’s highly likely that Adriaan’s a good person. He might be a great person. I wasn’t anticipating this. The man my imagination conjured yesterday was flimsy, fun and forgettable. What am I supposed to do with this human being whose lame joke gave me my first real laugh in weeks? What will this look like tomorrow, or the day after that? But then, what’s the point in thinking about tomorrow? All Daniel did was race against the future. He was a top student, president of Young Entrepreneurs Society, and had a job lined up before he even graduated. The thing that I liked the most about Mary was that she slowed him down; he lingered more in the present, in less of a rush to get to the next milestone.
As he walks back to the bar, I see the resignation in his expression, and the polite ‘goodbye’ forming on his lips. Before I can stop myself, I blurt, ‘You know what, actually, I’m feeling a bit better now.’ His eyebrows raise in surprise.
‘No, really, I think I just need some air. My favourite café is about five minutes from here – would you like to take a walk?’
Vanessa is a writer based in London. She’s obsessed with stories, and can be found writing about books, amongst other things, on her blog. Her most recurring dilemma is whether she should get a nose piercing.