Ella & Tim have been a couple for 2 years.
Ella is thin and Tim knows the stylist. Both work in content and enjoy taking photos of each other’s feet. Every Friday, Ella and Tim invite friends over for dinner. This Friday, Tim has bought the ingredients to make pasta vongole, as instructed by Ella, based on a recipe she found on a friend’s food blog. Ella is pouring herself something called an Aperol spritz at arm’s length, so as to avoid backsplash onto her off-white silk blouse and pleated skirt. The kebab shop outside their window casts a red rectangle on to the floorboards beneath her feet, disrupting the careful balance of Scandi minimalism and fun eclecticism. Tim says they should buy Venetian blinds. Ella shrugs. Tim sighs. Ella says that Tim would say that and Tim slams his fist down on the Magnet Kitchen granite worktop.
Ella says that she isn’t particularly hungry. Ella isn’t often hungry.
In the course of their two-year-one-month-and-three-week relationship, Tim cannot recall ever hearing Ella say that she was hungry or instigating the consumption of food. On the other hand, Ella has specifically avoided ever saying that she wasn’t hungry, for the sake of averting scrutiny of her eating habits. For that reason, Tim is now hurt. Ella can tell, because one of the mock maritime tattoos on his left bicep – a swallow in a sailor’s hat – is twitching uncontrollably. His face, of course, remains composed and startlingly chiselled. Ella apologises. Tim says, “No, no”, and puts down the thrifted Irish linen tea towel they bought during an idyllic day at Columbia Road flower market. He is about to write a passive aggressive statement about the whole thing on Facebook when, to Ella’s relief, the doorbell rings.
Tobey & Sarah have been a couple for 4 years and 2 months.
Tobey has just asked Sarah why she decided to switch from a Hollywood to a Brazilian without telling him, when Tim answers the door to his and Ella’s apartment.
“Sorry, wrong house!”
Tim is Tobey’s friend from university. After graduating, Tim used his graphic design degree to get a job at an online pop culture and lifestyle platform. Tobey used his for more explicitly corporate purposes, designing logos for tech start-ups and boutique banks. Although they both work around Old Street, only two streets apart and in near identical offices, Tim can’t help but feel sorry for Tobey.
“Shut the fuck up and let us in, you big turd.”
Tobey, for his part, knows that Tim secretly regrets the tattoos that are transforming him into a cartoon. Meanwhile, Sarah is effervescent about the newly attained definition to Ella’s upper arms and doesn’t waste a second in telling her. Ella is humbled and flattered and asks if that isn’t, oh my god, it is...
Sarah is lucky. Though, according to the OECD Better Life Index that Ella read about in that morning’s Guardian, they are all technically lucky. Tim offers Tobey an IPA. Tobey has brought a six-pack of Weissbier and shakes his head. Despite the simmering resentment, they chink bottles and dim the lights.
They each sit on a separate side of a vintage wooden table that Tim has restored using a sanding machine and black gloss paint. The water droplets clinging to the ends of Tobey’s and Sarah’s hair slowly evaporate as the air is warmed by boiling crustaceans whose salty aroma mars that of Ella’s Jo Malone candle. “Raining outside?” Ella asks, and the two guests nod. Tobey turns his attention to the poster of Ella and Tim that stares down at them from the wall above the mantelpiece: an outtake from an ad they recently shot for a French clothing brand.
“What the fuck, mate?”
“Leave it out, mate.”
Ella and Tim are both wearing loose-fitting white shirts and eyeliner. Tim looks pensive as he stares into the middle-distance. Ella smiles coyly towards the camera. They are standing in front of the apartment block in which Tim stayed during his secondment to an ad agency in Paris last year. The homeless man, who lay slumped outside (and whose death was eventually established a few days later) is evident only by the slight curl in Tim’s upper lip and flared left nostril.
“Seriously though, mate… congratulations.”
Despite Tobey’s attempts to backtrack, Tim looks despondently into his hand-blown glass tumbler of 4% IPA. What was he thinking, posing for a French clothing brand at such an important juncture in his career? Who would take him seriously now? Tim is full of self-doubt. A few months ago, he worried Ella sick by drinking one too many Desperados and repeating lines from The Matrix. Ella told Tim that he had too much to live for to throw it away on wanton self-destruction. Tim disagreed at first, but a few yoga sessions later and he was back creating branded content for rucksacks faster than she could say Fjällräven.
“How’s tricks with you?”
It is a loaded question. Tim knows Tobey out-earns him. He also knows that Tobey’s office culture is at least 50% less banterific than his own. Sarah has just got back from shadowing a photographer in LA and, to Tim’s surprise, Tobey saw his boss’ balls during a work bonding trip to Bucharest. Tim’s impressed. Ella, whose latest incarnation as an art PR hasn’t quite taken off in the way she had hoped, tells them all that she is thinking of becoming a teacher. Tim wishes she hadn’t. The level of pity is almost too much for anyone to bear. Tobey asks whether this isn’t the new Parquet Courts album playing via Tim and Ella’s Sonos sound system, by way of distraction. Tim replies with frantic haste that it is, it most certainly is.
Tobey buffs his nails on the lapels of his APC jacket. Sarah asks if that isn’t another tattoo and Tim clenches his left bicep and says, “What this? No, I’ve had it ages.” And Sarah says, “No, the other one” and Tim says, “Oh this?” and clenches the other bicep. Sarah says, “Yes, that one” before stroking a finger gently across the heart whose accompanying banner remains conspicuously devoid of text.
Ella pours herself another Aperol spritz without offering one to Tim, Tobey or Sarah and reminds Tobey that it is time to take the clams off the boil. Under the foul orange of the inner-city night sky, the rectangle of red light is developing an infernal glow from which only talk of Field Day can save them.
In a nearby park, a soon-to-be graduate of an MA course in new media is making the last adjustments to the settings on his domestic drone. Reinforcing the camera with a second wrap of duct tape, he places the delicate contraption on to grass thick with rain from the evening’s showers. Soon, everyone within a half-mile radius will know his name. He flicks the switch and pushes the little node that eases the mechanical animal up into the gloaming. There it hovers a few feet above his head, while his free hand fixes the Google Glass firmly into place.
As a new world emerges, he can already smell the ‘likes’ that will inevitably roll in: the trees fall away, incidental to the violet-gleaming monoliths that suddenly emerge in the distance. Eye-to-eye with the 20th floor of some apartment building on the edge of the City, the camera lurches forward, ready to capture the finer details of east London life after dark.
Simultaneously, a toy helicopter is preparing to lift off from the kerbstone of the kebab shop opposite Tim and Ella’s apartment. The shop’s owner, Nasuh, has told his son, Emre, to keep himself amused whilst he gets ready for the nightly drunken onslaught. Emre immediately abandons his hacky sack and steps out onto the street, retrieving the flying machine from his rucksack. Playing with the helicopter in the street is forbidden, but with dad distracted and mum out of town, he is, for the first time in his life, principal of his own fate and soon to be omnipotent ruler of the airspace.
Back in the flat, discussion has turned to the fact that Ella hasn’t eaten one morsel of Tim’s pasta vongole, which all parties concede to being downright “delish”. The fact is that Ella went to something called Burger & Lobster for lunch and exceeded her daily carb intake. Sarah would sympathise with this if either woman were able to get over the invisible chasm that exists between them. Instead, Sarah calls Ella variously “dollface” and “whaddababe”, while brutally betraying her in her dietary struggle by asking for a second serving of pasta. Tim declares that Sarah is “so cool”, which Ella takes to mean that she has nicer breasts. Tobey responds by saying, “All right mate, back off”, before convivially punching, and making blush, the pierrot on Tim’s right tricep.
Tim is less concerned that Ella potentially went for a romantic lunch with someone else than by the fact that he has never even heard of Burger & Lobster and is frankly mystified by the very concept. He Googles the name from his phone while Ella explains that she had been invited by her friend, Steve, who is moving to Copenhagen.
“And who’s Steve?” Tobey asks, one eye fixed on Tim.
“Don’t worry,” Tim says, swiping the air. “He’s Chinese.”
Ella says that Tim is racist and Tim says Ella is overreacting. Sarah tries to ease the tension by drawing attention to the mysterious blue form that has begun to infiltrate the rectangle of red light in sporadic, moth-like flutters.
Tim pushes his empty bowl away and rises from his seat. As he makes his way over to the window, the stripes of his Breton T-shirt begin to ripple with quiet rage. He is eye-to-eye with Emre’s toy helicopter, which hovers tentatively before inching closer to the window and clipping the pane with a plastic propeller.
Tim is out of the door and ready to direct months of pent-up rage at the kebab shop owner who is scrubbing a particularly stubborn blob of chili sauce from the floor (which Tim would remember spilling himself, had post-work drinks not reached such epic levels of carnage, mate). He is about to tell Nasuh and his deviant son that, while he is unable to report light pollution to the local council (and believe me, he’s tried), he is still well within his rights to report antisocial behaviour. And didn’t Nasuh know how to control his son? And why can’t his kid play in the back garden like every other kid? Tim has not moved here to be perennially inconvenienced by the irresponsibility of people that show scant regard for their neighbours.
Ella rises and shakes herself off. She makes her way to the bathroom, gesturing for her guests to pour themselves a drink and gliding across the room with the poise of someone who has mastered the art of living on insufficient calories and martyring themselves to the pointless cause of a graphic designer’s ego.
She indulges in the orchestrated tranquility of their blog-worthy bathroom. Notes of eucalyptus and tea-tree bounce between the white tiles, the white ceramic fittings and the white, roll-top bath. Tim created the olfactory balance to reflect the atmosphere of the sauna they use at their preferred members’ club. Ella is inspecting the fine lines that have begun to form around her top lip in the magnifying mirror which Tim had installed for that very purpose, when a loud crash followed by a pained cry carries in from outside. The window is fixed shut. Ella looks down to see Tim tangled under a knot of equipment with Nasuh standing over him and his small son hovering sheepishly behind.
The sky has grown dark and drops appear on the pane of glass through which Ella strains to make out the house opposite: a mirror of her own. A woman stands at the window looking out from a white bathroom with white tiles and a white roll-top bath. If only the rain could beat that bit harder, she thinks, and break the glass between them. The water would fall onto her face, yet she would smile as her make up stained her off-white pleats.
The woman opposite retreats into her private elysium and Ella looks back onto the street below. Sarah has emerged from downstairs and is mopping Tim’s brow, while Tobey follows behind and hoists him back onto his feet. A couple of miles away, a soon-to-be graduate of an MA course in new media looks for a phone to call the police to report the mugging of his Google Glass. The video remains intact and, if retrieved, could still win him some attention, especially on account of Tim’s unexpected cameo.
Emre’s helicopter is beyond repair following its collision with the drone and Nasuh decides not to replace it for the sake of teaching his son a lesson about respect.
Tomorrow the sun will be out and, with any luck, the global soybean reserves will hold out long enough for Tim to forget about the whole thing over a lactose-free matcha latte.
The Couples was published in Issue 1 of Somesuch Stories, available to purchase via Antenne Books.
Photograph by Lisovskaya