by Sarah McDermott
‘This is going to be so bad for the community.’ Hazel twisted a lock of hair around her fingers. ‘I mean, like, cataclysmic.’
She was just a face, I told myself. Just a head and shoulders on the laptop screen in the spare bedroom. If she ever had been a real person, she wasn’t one anymore. Behind her, I was plastered across the desktop background with three of our nephews, the four of us holding up the thirteen-foot paper chain we’d made on Boxing Day. I gave Dave’s arm a supportive squeeze. There were two more to go after this one.
This one wasn’t wearing makeup. From what I could see, she wasn’t even wearing proper clothes, just a shapeless off-white smock and a string of beads. Bit rude, I thought, considering I’d spent half an hour contouring and highlighting and then, in a moment of panic, curling my eyelashes. I’d even whipped out the GHDs. It had seemed vital, just an hour earlier, to look good for Dave’s girlfriends. And here was the first one, not even trying.
Hazel was an assistant curator at a gallery. She’d been furloughed early on when the government shut down the theatres and pubs, because galleries are basically just a kind of quiet theatre. I’d been imagining her lounging around her bedroom with nothing to do but paint her nails and text other people’s husbands while the money kept rolling in, but she obviously wasn’t making the effort. She had dark shadows under her eyes and her hair fell in unstyled waves around her face. Fragile. But in an annoying, studied kind of way.
She’d positioned herself in front of a window. The edge of a wall, violet like Monica Gellar’s apartment, poked in at the edge of the screen. God help whoever paid for her security deposit. A set of wind chimes hung motionless above her head and a little buddha sat cross-legged on the windowsill. When I’d imagined Dave wheezing up against her or wincing as he lowered himself onto her futon, it had never occurred to me that the buddha was watching and having a chuckle to himself. Good for him, I thought. At least someone could see the funny side of all this.
‘Obviously the non-primaries are going to take it hardest,’ Hazel said. Her voice was out of sync with the video. It gave her an otherworldly quality, as though we were receiving a signal from an alien dimension. ‘But it’s actually the couples I’m most worried about. I mean, having to go back to one partner…’
‘It’s only for a few months,’ Dave said, and I knew for a fact he didn’t believe it. ‘Just until this whole virus thing clears up.’
We’ll see about that, I thought. Personally I had a feeling Hazel was right. The polyamorous community was about to collapse in on itself and nature was going to reassert the proper order of things: If you live in a house with your husband, you get to shag him. If you live in a ‘community activist space’ or a Berkshire goat farm or your eccentric aunt’s refurbished patio, you can shag whoever lives there with you. Best of luck. On you pop.
‘Have you told Heidi yet?’ Hazel asked.
‘She’s next on the list,’ I said. The connection blinked, freezing Hazel’s eyebrows in a delicate arch I probably wasn’t supposed to have said anything. Maybe she hadn’t realised I was there. Or, more likely, she knew but assumed I’d be keeping my mouth shut, as usual.
‘She’ll take it hard,’ Hazel continued. ‘Jem broke it off with her last week too.’
Was Jem one of Dave’s girls? Was Jem even a girl’s name? There were so many names to keep track of. So many fresh-faced Olivias and Poppys and Amelias and Florences, each more wholesome and free-spirited and filthy than the last.
‘You should give her a call,’ Dave said. ‘I know some people are planning on staying in touch over Zoom.’
‘But you’re not?’
‘No, I’m thinking…’ Dave faltered. He shrugged.
‘Oh, David. You sure you’ll be okay?’
He nodded, mouth a tight line, and I dug my fingertips into his forearm, hoping I looked supportive. It was my only choice, really. What else was there to be? A sad bitch keeping her man locked down. Poor David, worn down by the dreariness of monogamy.
It’s all right for you, I thought at her. You’re a part-timer on furlough. I’ve got to stay on and work through it.
Hazel couldn’t see the state of his rubbed-raw hands or the heavy lines under his eyes. She didn’t know that everything that came into the house went through a three-step sterilisation and quarantine process. She certainly didn’t know – because there’s no way that fit into the free-loving version of himself he wanted his girls to see – that he co-opted our spare room long before the government insisted on it. He was carting files and hard drives back from the office back in January. My admin operation was more minimalist, so I’d claimed the kitchen table and stocked up on aspirin. The whole house was half office, half waiting room.
Poor David. And poor Hazel, stuck at home without anyone to pop over and liven things up. She could probably have found a man – a proper man, just for her – if she’d made the effort. Instead she’d just tacked herself on to other people’s marriages, and now it was too late.
‘You know if you get lonely or anything you can always talk to us,’ I heard myself say.
‘That’s so kind of you, Debbie.’ She smiled. It was hard to tell if a smile was fake over these calls. ‘And same for you two, you know. Anything I can do to help. Just to talk, I mean.’ A too-loud laugh. ‘Obviously I don’t want to, like, have a threesome over Zoom or anything.’
“The polyamorous community was about to collapse in on itself and nature was going to reassert the proper order of things: If you live in a house with your husband, you get to shag him.”
Dave laughed too. Their laughter, the timing just a little off-kilter, echoed against our eggshell-white walls. The spare room felt more like an office now, my grandma’s old dressing table doing double-duty as a desk and filing cabinet. It was where Dave took meetings and bashed through reports and signed off the few orders that were still trickling in. But it was still recognisably a bedroom. We were sitting side-by-side on the spare bed. I smiled at the laptop’s winking camera.
‘You know, you can see other people too, if you want,’ Dave had told me once, as if that would have made it fair and square. I didn’t want. I’d never even considered it. But now I wished I’d found some bearded fireman with a doctorate in astrophysics just to prove I could. Just to make sure he knew he wasn’t the only one who could do better.
Too late now. Pity. Instead, I put a hand on Dave’s wrist and tightened my grip.
‘Out of curiosity, before we let you go, could I ask you something?’ The question was for Hazel but I couldn’t bring myself to look away from Dave. He was smiling at me as though we were a happy, normal couple. I wondered if the smile was for my benefit or hers.
‘Sure,’ Hazel’s voice was distant, still chirpy.
‘What was it you saw in Dave?’ He started at that, trying to pull his hand free, but I held on tight. I let my eyes move over his softening jawline and thinning hair. His nose had never been straight, but it looked bigger and redder nowadays. Not exactly boyfriend material.
On the other side of the screen, Hazel laughed again. I imagined her deploying that laugh in the gallery, back when things were normal, when some day-tripping pensioner compared her with a pre-Raphaelite or a mature art student offered to sketch her.
‘I mean, he’s such a great guy,’ she said.
‘You don’t have to tell me that. I married him, didn’t I?’ I let my eyes wander lower. ‘But he was twenty-three at the time – and he had a six-pack in those days.’
‘Deb,’ he said, trying to pull his hand loose. But I held on and he let me. ‘Don’t embarrass her.’
‘I—’ Hazel was still smiling. ‘I don’t know if you two need to…’
‘He has gorgeous eyes, doesn’t he?’ It was true. Dave’s eyes were like big black pools. ‘I used to tell everyone my boyfriend looked like Peter Andre. Do you remember when Peter Andre was fit? Or are you too young?’
‘Didn’t you say you have other people to…?’ Hazel glanced somewhere offscreen, looking for an excuse to get off the call. But that was the trouble in those days. No one had anything else to do. The polite excuses we used to structure our conversations – dates, showtimes, bedtimes, time itself – had all dried up. There was nothing but space to fill up.
‘Yeah,’ Dave said. ‘There’s Heidi next. Then Pippa, I think.’
I knew them all, kind of. They were photos I’d vetted on Tinder or, when things got more serious, I’d met them once or twice. Dave squirmed through two courses at Wagamama with me and Pippa, but we just went for coffee with the rest of them. Mortifying every time, of course, but it was a good excuse for a croissant and an extra shot of vanilla.
‘And Elsa, obviously,’ said Hazel.
‘I,’ Dave started to say. He glanced at me. ‘I didn’t actually see much of Elsa.’
‘God. Bet you’ll miss her, though.’
‘Yeah, she’s,’ Dave ducked his head, but not before I saw a flash of a smile that tugged at something inside me. I hadn’t seen Dave smile like that in a long time. ‘She’s hard to pin down, that one.’
It was hard to tell, from looking at the screen, if Hazel was watching me. But I knew what she wanted. I was supposed to fly into a jealous rage. Just who is this Elsa? She isn’t on the approved list of women you’re shagging.
The thing is, once you’ve let your man sleep around on a limited basis, the news that he’s sneaking around with unapproved women isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering revelation. The existence of an Elsa – a God-you’ll-miss-her, hard-to-pin-down lioness of a woman – might have sent me spiralling once. But now? I’d seen them all. I’d seen the posh girls who wear nothing but Primark, the house-sitting stoners who sent him home stinking of weed and the junior barristers who didn’t have time to waste on proper relationships. They were just girls, all of them. Nothing to be intimidated by. If they were all that special, they wouldn’t be wasting their time with Dave.
‘Well, we’ve got all afternoon,’ I said brightly. ‘If Dave can track down her number, we could give her a call.’
They were making that hollow, echoing sound again, bouncing it off the walls and over the internet at each other. I didn’t feel like joining in.
‘I do have to go,’ said Hazel when she’d finished pretending to laugh. ‘But if you ever need to, ah, debrief or unpack or—’ an awkward gesture, ‘you know, process, like they say we’re supposed to? You know where to find me.’
It was the early days. Calls either dwindled down to a trickle of yeahs and take cares or they slammed into a wall. Hazel blinked off the screen as though she’d never been there. Dave leaned forward to shut down Zoom and I stared at myself on his desktop, holding up that stupid paper chain.
Dave didn’t say anything. He was breathing hard, his shoulders hunched now that he didn’t have to look relaxed for the camera. There were two more girls to call. And then maybe Elsa, whoever she was.
I put my hand over his. Geared up for an all-night shift.
It’s just you and me now, baby, I thought. Just what I always wanted.
Sarah McDermott | @most_illegible
Sarah is a writer and editor based in London. She obsesses over podcasts, punctuation and the past.