She had met David online when he, a mutual friend of an old colleague, had sent her a friend request. Following what had been a taxing, if not entirely tedious, day of processing innumerable forms, she had returned home to find the little figure in the top right corner of the home screen was coloured red, proffering a tiny speech bubble containing the single number ‘1’. It wasn’t the case that this alone had taken her by surprise, or had stirred any greatly anticipatory emotions within her. She was used to friend requests, from distant cousins, neighbours, and the like, though most often from middle-aged colleagues who, having recently discovered their own effervescent online presence, would proceed to forward video compilations of dogs falling into swimming pools, and grainy, garish reproductions of inspirational quotations from pulp fiction writers. But David was different: a stranger, a spark of promise amidst the quotidian hum of the everyday. She knew at once that she would accept the request, but humoured her shy sense of dignity by scanning his profile briefly, as if to vet the man at the other end of it, flicking through profile pictures and noting which school he had gone to, before sending her response.
After she had accepted, she fed her cat, folded some laundry, and completed the minutiae of the quiet evening, before getting ready for bed. That night, whilst brushing her teeth, she looked up at her face reflected in the small oval mirror that hung above the sink. She had never been considered a beauty, even in her youth, but she fancied that her face still retained something of the girl that came before the woman. She was grateful for her mother’s high cheekbones, which, even now, seemed to beat back against the inevitable pull of gravity, keeping her jawline from drooping – though her own aging had never truly disturbed her, as it had others.
‘Of course you don’t mind, Ann.’ Her sister, Maggie, had exclaimed, discovering the first rogue chin hair. ‘But I do. Fetch me some tweezers quickly, for God’s sake.’
Almost a decade later, she still could recall how Maggie had continued to absent-mindedly rub the area from whence the hair had been plucked, as if to smother any instinct her body might have to reproduce it.
Before she went to bed, she looked again at David’s profile and it occurred to her to question if the request had been sent in error, and whether her hasty acceptance had made her look foolish. But, when her alarm rang the next morning, she awoke to discover a new notification on her phone screen: a comment, beneath a photograph of her, at Maggie’s fortieth birthday party. In it, she was standing in the background, behind a white plastic lawn chair, holding a stack of paper plates and smiling, as party poppers partially obscured the foreground of the photograph.
She read his comment over, and then again, squinting and blinking the morning’s blur away. She refreshed the page, and still it was there, as fixed as a Shakespearean phantom dagger, leading the way forward – the way to him. Ann would laugh about this comparison later but, that morning, she looked again at the photo, this time with a more critical eye, and surveyed its contents. It was a good picture, and even she conceded that there was something nice about the way her hair looked under the glow of the fairy lights she had helped to string up, in Maggie’s garden: it looked soft, and the small, twinkling bulbs behind it had given her face a suggestion of warmth. She noticed however, for the first time, Flossy, the family’s border collie, lounging on the grass of the neatly clipped lawn, to the left of her: still only a puppy then, she had her head cocked to one side, with the slightest expression of alarm, prompted by the frenzied celebrations, in her baleful brown eyes. She looked particularly cute. Had David meant…? But, before the question could fully formulate in her mind, a second notification flashed up – a private message, this time:
‘Dog’s cute, too.’
That day had passed much the same as the following 4 weeks. Almost instantly, they had begun messaging daily. She had told David about her work in the finance office of a local primary school, of her day trips to the coast, and what she was reading. He, in turn, had told her about his collection of movie memorabilia, about the years he had spent working in Asia, as a young man, and about how he had always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A quickening sense of comfortability permeated their conversations, and she soon found herself revelling in his attentiveness. A flurry of sensations, each more exquisite than the last, had now infiltrated her life. She marvelled at the happiness this chance encounter had brought her since.
Though their interaction had been limited to the online realm, the first breach into the real world was made when David had a bouquet of flowers delivered to her office, one breezy afternoon in June. She had been staring at the sky, through the window nearest her desk, contemplating the threat of rain, when Julie, the school’s receptionist, had swung her broad hips through the office door with a tall box and a smirk.
“For you.” Julie had said, before half turning, searching for a reason to hover.
She was desperate to take the box home with her, and open it in the delicious privacy of her flat, but the peering eyes of her colleagues made it clear that she had no choice but to unveil the gift to all. Inside the box, she found a sumptuous mass of sunflowers and delphiniums, and a card, which she had rapidly concealed from view, cringing in the burning heat of exposure.
“Who are they from, then?” They had asked.
“Oh, just Maggie.” She lied. “I babysat the twins the other week, while she and Mark were at one of his work dinners.”
She had not yet told a soul about David, and had not enjoyed the prying inquiries of her peers, least of all from Julie, who squeezed her shoulder, taking great, heaving sniffs of the bouquet, as if to validate their authenticity. Julie was the sort of woman whose gregarious displays of exaltation and delight for others revealed her own feelings about their inadequacy. Her surprise at the gift’s arrival indicated just how paltry she perceived the life of its recipient to be, compared with her own.
“Oh, Annie!” She’d squealed, and practically shook her hand in congratulations.
Ann resisted the urge to read the card until she was safely back in her flat, at which point she carefully opened the envelope to reveal the printed message of its sender.
‘I hope these brighten your day, as you do mine.’
The following Sunday afternoon, she expected Maggie for a visit. She had spent the morning sprucing up the place, even going as far as to dust the back of the TV, and wipe down the slats of her kitchen window blinds. As she did this, she noticed herself humming. She had placed the flowers on an old stool, which doubled as a coffee table in her somewhat poky living room, carefully lifting the vase so as not to disturb the petals. They had not yet begun to turn, and she looked at them again and again throughout the day, as they sang their colours boldly.
Maggie was late, and had not escaped the rain, which had also arrived, despite the warm weather. Leaving her coat by the door, but keeping her handbag with her, she allowed Ann to guide her into the living room before she launched into a rant about the weather.
“It can’t make up its mind.” She said.
Ann smiled to herself, wondering what David would make of this, and it reminded her of a message he had sent her, earlier that week. She imagined he would laugh at the very Britishness of it all, and make a joke about the immutable nature of small talk.
“Something looks different about the flat.” Maggie had remarked, at last, as she sat on the sofa. Ann had smiled, taking the armchair by the window, as was her habit during these visits; they talked about work, and Maggie’s children, the threads of their conversations weaving neatly and familiarly together in a stale sort of complacency. After a half hour or so, Ann got up to fetch a packet of biscuits, which she knew her sister would not touch, and to refresh their mugs of tea. She wondered if her leaving the room would draw fresh attention to the flowers on the table, and that perhaps Maggie might save her the trouble of bringing the subject up, by mentioning them first. She had wanted to tell Maggie about David, for her sister to be the first to hear about him. She had planned the disclosure carefully, and had hoped that the flowers might provide a useful segue into discussing him, with her sister.
It wasn’t true to say that they were not close, or that they did not talk. Their routines were deeply and jointly embedded, and the historical familiarity of one another’s habits was surpassed only by their own. They had existed, for all of their adult lives, within reach of one another, but their closeness was reserved to a realm of practicality: pragmatic, without real intimacy. It was as if both women had reached an understanding that to delve into anything beyond the superfluous might risk reopening old wounds. When the subject of their childhood, or their mother, was, on occasion, raised – perhaps at parties, or by friends – the two had established brisk strategies for changing the subject, in a way that did not raise alarm, but calmly and quietly ended the line of enquiry. It had taken Ann years to realise that this strategy had not only been exercised with strangers, but with one another, and the realisation of this had pained her.
Ann wondered if her intended, yet tentative, revelation about David might stoke the embers, and inspire a spark of change; she felt revitalised by this hopefulness. For years, even before their mother’s death, they had co-existed, paradoxically separate, and yet also inextricably together. She longed to light a fire over the dry plains of their communication, and she knew David could do it for her.
At long last, the bubble of privacy in which Ann had existed for the past month, was broken, as she heard Maggie’s voice calling from the adjacent room.
“These aren’t very you, are they.” She said. “What’s the occasion?”
“Oh.” She replied, and carried the mugs back through to the room, the packet of biscuits pinned under her arm. “They’re from a friend of mine. A new friend.”
Her sister shot her a brief glance, and she felt her legs might give out under the weight of her burdening desire to say his name. Maggie, uncharacteristically, reached for the packet, which Ann had settled on the arm of the sofa.
A rogue image flashed into her mind, of a time when she was very young, when Maggie had shown her the way to make rock scones. They had made them together. Hers had come out hard as tack, and she had despaired at her own uselessness, with a tantrum. But, as Ann was wiping her face, Maggie, perhaps a little clumsily, had picked up a few of her sister’s and mixed them in with her own perfect batch.
“Stop crying. See?” She had snapped, irritated by her whining, and holding a burned round up for her to look at, tapping it against the table. “I’ve made them before, and I still make mistakes. The oven must be broken. It’s not you. Stop crying, now.”
Ann felt a wave of nostalgia sweep over her, and was almost about to ask her sister if she remembered doing that, when Maggie brushed the crumbs from the corner of her mouth, and made her reply.
“Yes, I noticed that, actually. David, is it? I saw him tag you in something online the other week, and I wondered how you knew him. You know he’s Diane’s husband? Well, ex-husband, but only just.”
Ann froze momentarily before this revelation, and the slow, foul feeling of rot pervaded her. She felt that she knew, before it was said, that whatever her sister was about to tell her would bring to an end the delicate spell under which she had been rapt, for the past month.
“You know he’s always liking girls’ pictures, online, don’t you.” Maggie had said, conclusively, in statement of fact, rather than in expectation of a response. “Diane said it was practically compulsive.”
The use of the word ‘girls’ served its exclusionary purpose, both reminding Ann of her age, and reinforcing the ugly inflection the insinuation carried. As Maggie proceeded to describe his cataclysmic marital dramas, Ann felt herself steel against the sound of her voice, and the warmth of the earlier afternoon all but dissipated under the gravity of her disappointment. It wasn’t that Maggie had revealed anything particularly abominable, but rather that every new piece of information, significant or not, toppled the fragile framework she had built over the past month. It was spoiled. Something ugly had been allowed to enter this sanctum of happiness, and had muddied the water, now stagnant and foul. He was no longer a part of her future, but someone else’s history. By the time Maggie had finished her story and moved on to the topic of her noisy neighbours, Ann was entirely still, the hopes of the day having been extinguished one by one, like spent matches.
“But I don’t understand – why the flowers?” Maggie had asked, at long last.
“Oh,” Replied Ann, carefully, “I did him a favour. Processed some paperwork, that’s all. It was just a thank you.”
Maggie had been so engaged in the recitation of her news, she almost hadn’t noticed the state of emotional abjection then present the room and, taking into account Ann’s poorly worded explanation, and finding her sister less responsive than before, she hesitated, looking back at the quiet trail of destruction left in her wake. This was always her way, and she felt regret ooze silently into her mouth. She swallowed.
Both women sat noiselessly in the room, listening to the soft, twilit hushes of evening, from beyond the open window. A chill had swept inside and, in the time that had passed since Maggie’s arrival, it had grown almost too dark for them to see one another. But the prospect of switching on the main lights felt abrupt to Ann, who became suddenly afraid of the moment it would disrupt the pair, causing Maggie to realise the time – to return home, to Mark and the children. She knew, rather than hoped, this would happen soon, and did not wish to face the yellow meagreness of the evening alone. The night before her seemed to be stretched out: an endless tide of silence beating back the noise that had preceded it.
Eventually, however, the evening arrived and, neither wanting to acknowledge the situation before them, both Ann and her sister understood the time had come to part. Ann walked her to the door, and watched as her sister gathered her things and zipped up her boots. As Maggie turned to go, she hesitated. Her eyes quickly appraised her younger sister, and she wanted desperately to find the words she had said and cram them back into her mouth, but didn’t, nor did she address the want. Instead, having never been a hugger, she took Ann’s arm, for the briefest of moments, before letting go, and shutting the door behind her.
Later that night, as Ann’s phone lit up with another of David’s unreciprocated messages, on the nightstand by her bed, she pictured Maggie walking through the door of her home. She saw her, and her husband and children, and wondered what they might have spent the evening doing. She thought about their tea, their routines and their voices, and pictured her sister loading the dishwasher as Mark let the dog out a final time, both having sent the twins to bed before the News At Ten. She saw her sister’s face in the mirror above her own bathroom sink, and wondered what Maggie was doing, right at that moment. She thought about her sister, in the bedroom of her home, across the city, and in that bedroom, across the city, her sister thought of her, too.