A small café, lunchtime. Ryan sits alone, chewing on the inside of his cheek. He watches people as they pass him by, looking for her. Short, blonde, very sarcastic: that’s all the information James has given him. Ryan is thirsty, but he thinks it best to wait. Polite.
‘Hello.’ A woman, short and blonde. It’s too early to tell if she’s sarcastic or not. She helps herself to a seat at the table while Ryan tries to pull together a smile. She’s pretty.
‘Yes.’ He should know her name, but it eludes him. The moment passes.
‘Julia,’ she says, picking up a menu. Ryan does the same, but he doesn’t really read any of it. He’ll see what she orders before he looks at anything. If she chooses something vegetarian, he will as well. If she goes for something on the ‘Light Bites’ menu, so will he. If she only orders a drink, he will too.
In the end, they both order paninis and find themselves arguing over films as they eat.
Another café, another lunchtime. Ryan smiles as he spots her sitting at a table. He makes a joke about Indiana Jones – knowing how much Julia hates that series – and the conversation picks up where they left it. They’re eating burgers instead of paninis this time and the staff here are much less friendly, but other than that everything is the same.
‘How’s the burger?’ he says.
‘Tastes how you’d expect a burger to. Burger-y.’ After a few minutes she says, ‘You know, I could really go for a drink after this.’
‘Five o’clock isn’t too early, is it?’
‘I’ve drunk earlier before.’
She smiles. ‘All right, Mr. Alcoholic. Do you know any places nearby?’
She clicks her tongue. ‘I’ll admit it, I’m surprised.’
‘What? You didn’t think I could cook?’
‘No, no – this is lovely though. I was actually referring to your flat.’
‘What about it?’
‘It’s clean. I was expecting some sort of dingy man-cave.’
‘Not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment.’ After a few minutes: ‘So what’s your place like then? Dingy woman-cave?’
‘Not at all.’
‘My flat would put yours to shame.’
‘So we can eat there next time?’
‘Of course. Just so long as we get takeaway.’
‘So what do you think?’
He kicks the vending machine again. It makes a defiant clunk and gives them nothing. Ryan and Julia are standing in the hotel corridor at a time not far off 1am. Most of the lights are off, and no one else is around. The place smells like wet socks. Ryan takes a break from kicking and turns to Julia.
‘Why are you standing all the way over there?’
‘In case the alarm goes off. I want a head-start.’
‘It’s a vending machine.’
‘It’s private property.’ Julia flicks her head upwards. ‘Plus I want to stay out of the CCTV’s view.’
Ryan looks up, squinting through the dim light. ‘It’s… I don’t think that’s even working. Besides, I’m the one in the right. I ordered a packet of crisps and…’
‘Ordered?’ Julia breaks into a fit of laughter. ‘Jesus, you’re making it sound like a waiter at a restaurant. It’s a bloody vending machine.’ Ryan does not laugh as well. He’s too tired. Too tired and too hungry.
‘We need to eat something,’ he says.
‘Ready-salted crisps do make for a romantic dinner.’
‘How was I supposed to know nowhere would be open? I thought there’d at least be a 24-hour place or something.’ He sighs and slumps down against the wall. ‘Sorry. I’ve messed everything up, haven’t I?’
‘Don’t be stupid.’ Julia walks over to him and places her hand on his head. With her other hand, she pulls out a packet of mints and offers one to Ryan. ‘Polos for dinner?’
One Hundred and Twelve
Ryan’s flat. There’s a sprawl of DVDs over the floor, with various bits of food packaging dotted throughout. He and Julia are sat on the sofa, a lifeboat in a sea of mess, with pizza boxes on their laps. A film is playing on the TV, but neither of them are paying attention.
‘You know,’ says Julia, ‘this pizza is pretty depressing.’
‘In what way?’
‘Knowing that I’ll never be able to make anything that tastes this good. I mean, I’d pick a takeaway pizza over any other food any day. You could present me with a flawless, perfect soufflé and I don’t think it would come anywhere close to tasting as good as a ham and pineapple pizza.’
‘Well, I’d personally take a soufflé over a pizza with…’
‘Let’s not get into the whole pineapple thing again.’
‘I’m just saying…’
‘Nope, nope, nope.’
Ryan shakes his head and smiles. ‘Do you want another glass of wine?’
‘See, that’s the sort of thing you should be saying.’
Ryan puts his pizza box on the floor and gets up. He heads into the kitchen and pours out two glasses of wine – though he sips away most of his on the way back to the sofa.
After handing Julia her glass, Ryan says, ‘You’ve been hanging out here a lot lately.’
‘Well, I don’t have to wash up here, do I?’ She smiles – then frowns. ‘Wait, are you saying that I come over too often?’
‘No, no. God no.’ He sips his wine. ‘I just, well…’ Sip. ‘I just wanted to ask you something…’ Sip. ‘Do you want to move in together?’
‘If you think you can put up with me, then yes. Yes.’
Two Hundred and Sixty-Six
The four of them are sat around a table in the living room. It’s a fold-up one that Ryan and Julia only get out when people come over to eat: parents, friends, siblings, colleagues. Jo and Richard are here tonight – Julia went to university with them. After some teasing, Ryan found out that she used to have a crush on Richard.
They’re eating Chinese.
‘So,’ says Julia, swallowing a mouthful of chicken chow-mein, ‘I didn’t want to bring this up until one of you two mentioned it, but… Well, I think I should address the elephant in the room.’
‘Come on, Juls,’ says Jo. ‘I’m not that big.’
‘So how long have you been pregnant for? Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘It’s been a few months,’ says Jo. ‘I would’ve told you before, but I didn’t really know how to bring it up. Phoning you just to say I’m pregnant… It seems a bit self-congratulatory, doesn’t it?’
‘You’re pregnant, you can be as self-congratulatory as you want.’
‘Don’t say that,’ says Richard.
They all laugh and Jo gives Richard a thump. Ryan and Julia exchange smiles, and she gives him a quick kiss.
After the meal is over, Ryan takes everybody’s plates into the kitchen, and Julia follows him to talk about things.
Three Hundred and One
Lunchtime. Ryan eats his sandwich while Julia talks to Jo on the phone. He can only hear half of the conversation, but he knows they’re talking about baby names. Every now and then she glances at him.
Three Hundred and Fifty-Three
Ryan stirs his spoon around in the pool of tomato soup in front of him. It came from a tin and gives off a strong artificial smell. He is trying to avoid Julia’s eyes.
‘So?’ she says.
Julia lets out a laugh. It’s impossible to tell if it’s one of annoyance or amusement. Maybe it’s both. Julia finished her soup a few minutes ago, and has even mopped around the inside of her bowl with a slice of bread.
‘You know how much I love this place,’ she says. ‘But we can’t stay here forever. It’s so small – it’s like a stone tomb. Though, admittedly, a comfy one.’
‘I think it’s fine.’
‘Yeah, but will you feel the same way in a couple of years? We might as well get out while we can still look back on this place fondly.’
‘Can we talk about this later?’
Three Hundred and Eighty-Five
There is nothing to eat except beans on toast, so that’s what they have.
‘God,’ says Julia, ‘it’s not that hard to make a reservation, is it?’
‘Sorry, it slipped my mind.’
‘Yeah, but…I just thought because it’s our anniversary…I thought you could pretend to care a little bit.’
‘Sorry, that was mean.’
Ryan sets his cutlery down. ‘I do care. I care about you. I just…’
‘You just what? I try to talk to you about things, I try to talk about us, and you always just brush me off.’
Ryan clears his throat. ‘We’ll go out tomorrow – I’ll book somewhere really fancy. I promise.’
Three Hundred and Eighty-Seven
A busy restaurant. The high ceilings and multiple chandeliers make Ryan feel underdressed despite wearing his best shirt. He tells Julia to push the boat out as much as she wants – nothing is too expensive. So, of course, she orders the lobster.
The waiter places it down in front of her: a hulking mass of red. She grins at Ryan and says, ‘I’ll try to refrain from making too many shellfish puns.’
Ryan responds with a weak smile and returns his attention to his steak. He doesn’t really touch it, or even lift his knife and fork, he just looks at it.
‘Ryan, what’s going on?’
He looks up. ‘Sorry, I was just thinking about work stuff. How’s the lobster?’
‘No, we’re talking about you.’
‘I’m fine, don’t worry.’
‘But I do worry, Ryan. So what is it? Why are you acting so mopey all the time? Why do you never want to speak to me about things?’
‘It’s nothing, I promise.’
Julia inhales. ‘Ryan, I just…Where do you want this relationship to go?’
‘What’s wrong with where it is now?’
Four Hundred and Forty-Two
Ryan has picked up a reduced ready meal from the supermarket: chilli con carne. The two of them sit in the kitchen and sift through their portions, now and then raising their forks to their mouths.
Julia drops her cutlery down and gets up. She pulls her handbag up off the back of her chair.
‘Where are you going?’ says Ryan.
‘I’m going out,’ she says. ‘I forgot to mention it before, but I’m meeting some friends.’
Ryan feels like he should say something – she wants him to say something – but he doesn’t know what. After she leaves, he picks up the two plates in turn and scrapes them off into the bin.
Four Hundred and Sixty-Nine
A chicken korma ready meal.
Four Hundred and Ninety-Three
A spaghetti Bolognese ready meal.
Five Hundred and Twenty
A cottage pie ready meal.
Five Hundred and Thirty-Seven
A tikka masala ready meal. And raised voices.
Five Hundred and Thirty-Eight
Ryan stands by the microwave and listens to it hum. There are noises coming from the bedroom: rummaging, rustling, thumping. The sounds of Julia feeding her suitcase.
She comes into the kitchen and collects some things while he eats his ready meal. Neither of them say anything.
Five Hundred and Thirty-Nine
An American-style diner. It smells of grease. Ryan sits at a table by himself, and, after a brief look at the menu, orders a burger and a glass of diet cola. With that done, he takes out his phone.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Just wanted to see how you’re doing. Do you know when you’ll be back at all?’
Julia does not say anything.
‘It’s been a couple of weeks.’ He chews on the inside of his cheek. ‘I just wanted to say that things aren’t right without you. The flat isn’t right. There’s no one to put the DVDs back in the wrong order.’
‘And I miss you. I really miss you. Everything just feels a bit worthless when you’re not around.’
Julia says nothing. No sounds come from the phone except her steady breathing. A waitress places a glass of diet cola in front of Ryan. He takes a sip.
‘How are Laura and David?’ he says.
‘You really want to know how my parents are doing?’
‘I just want you to stay on the phone.’
Five Hundred and Forty
A small café, lunchtime. Ryan spots her sat at one of the tables as soon as he enters. He sits down opposite her. Their eyes meet for a second before she turns her attention back to her menu. He picks one up as well, but finds it difficult to read anything. One of them will have to talk eventually – he knows that is inevitable.
But for now, they just sit.