Break up

She hated getting the tube in just to see him. The money wasted was one thing- he could drive couldn’t he? - but it was also the tedium. There was literally nothing to do but stand, endure the absence of air, and wait. And this was while you also maintained the vacant expression that everyone wore on London Underground services, even when suffocating under another commuter’s armpit.


So if once again he wasn’t going to come out of town to see her, Hattie had insisted that tonight they meet somewhere central- St James’s Park, she’d decided. It was near enough to his home, and also to her waitressing job in Clapham. So the park was easy for them both to get to. As a plus, she thought London’s communal parks presented achievable social hubs for the young and mostly-stuck-in-their-overdraft- although Thomas Burrows, of one of the fanciest of all the nice mews in Bloomsbury, a ‘Tommy’ to everyone but his family, had a comfortably-settled-savings-account. He openly resented lowering himself to the substrata of youth in a park with tinnies and a Tesco meal deal, because that was definitely more her friends.


That afternoon she had informed him over the phone, with no small amount of uncharacteristic firmness, that she could not be arsed with farting around on google maps for him. In her head, she had elaborated even further- because she felt she was spending her entire life trying to find these new and Timeout-listed spots he’d heard about on Instagram, on another U-bending route that told her she needed to make three or four changes just to get to them. No she didn’t have time to walk an hour out from an East London Overground station (this quirky shit was always in East London), just to get to some strange version of a cafe with a new selling-point supplement of hipster.


And now about one year into their relationship, they’d done ‘cereal’ and ‘board game’ cafes, which completely erased the original meaning of ‘cafe’ (and always made her imagine Marseillais and Marseillaise everywhere chuckling and crossing their fingers for Brexit). And these places seemed to be just another setting on the expensive mantra of things that were meant to prove you had quirk, and she was getting tired of it all.


She caught the Victoria line, while thinking back to all the dates they’d pretended to love that, in reality, had been as mechanical in routine as walking a dog. Perhaps she really should just get a pet instead, she thought. Although, saying that, the worst date had definitely been the feline fiasco at the cat cafe. The train was delayed so, of course, her brain had time for a full recollection.


The pastel-coloured cafe had been full of imprisoned kittens that were either sleeping or violently angry- she’d presumed that they were hating on the fact their lives had culminated in dead- end jobs at a tiny-hipster-zoo. Understandable. Immediately after Tommy and her had settled with sitting side by side- she remembered too well how cramped they were, perched awkwardly on a bright pink and overstuffed chaise longue- the cafe workers had begun luring the felines over with coloured bells and these, very morbid she thought, toy-mice-on-sticks. While Tommy’s phone was positioned in the direction of the cats, and videoing every second, he’d actually seemed more interested in talking at a very fast pace in the direction of her face. This hadn’t been the conversation flowing, as it was unclear if he was actually addressing her (it is hard to tell with certain people when they begin monologuing). This particular speech did seem addressed more inwardly, with the odd word or two like ‘award’ ‘interview’ or ‘grant’, emphasised with an added few decibels for the half-listening couple opposite them. It had seemed he was updating himself on his latest ventures into the London music scene, on the latest potential label (she’d never heard of) that he was considering signing with. And while he had been so preoccupied with constructing a build-it-yourself halo out of his words, it had immediately become clear to Hattie that the cat cafe’s kitten militia were slowly catching the scent of scared-human on her. While she’d mm’d and aa’d in all of the right places for Tommy, she was far more concerned with having been chosen as today’s scapegoat for their feline existential rage. When he’d paused, sipping his coffee, and she’d assumed that he was now either, one,
meditating on the inevitability of his encroaching stardom, or, two, waiting for some form of validation from her, a particularly vicious kitty scratched a deep red dent into her arm. When ‘Mittens’ and ‘Fluffy’ 
then stole the whipped cream off her not-included-and-overpriced hot chocolate, she finally admitted to herself that yes, perhaps it was very possible that Tommy and her were beginning to drift apart. 

 

Scrolling blankly through old Instagram photos that weren’t loading as she waited for her stop, Hattie had to admit that all of their dates usually reached this kind of uninspiring conclusion, even if it didn’t seem that way to her Instagram followers. Once they’d taken the photos for the gram that proved they’d been to wherever they were, she’d usually realise she was hungry, but could only afford tap water. Maybe with her student overdraft she’d order a smoothie, which would probably come with a protruding finger of celery if you were lucky (and probably with a name like ‘The Supergreen’ or ‘The Green One’ or ‘The Fresh Greta’). She’d want to ask the young waitresses, who she’d always notice were completely blemish-free, if they had anything with calories:


‘Perhaps a 99 with a flake? Did they have those? Do millennials still know what they are?


Could she possibly get one that was actually 99p?’


But she knew if she asked anything like that, the waitress and Tommy would collaborate in a ‘she’s a bit eccentric isn’t she’ knowing glance. She’d have to hear Tommy saying something along the lines of ‘ignore her’ to the waitress, with a touch of embarrassment that always kept her ego permanently bundled up in a small ball under the figurative carpet. She would gather that she must be weird to want the reassurance that, amongst the 500 shades of Vegan-green Fresh Gretas infesting the high street, the taste of after-school nostalgia and easier times were still around for a young (and anxiously trying to be) adult.


If by now she still hadn’t convinced herself to end things with this guy (and her best friend had tried and given up with this long ago), as she passed Pimlico she also replayed last week at Starbucks. Tommy hated Starbucks, (obviously, it was a chain), but he would usually need a place with WiFi while he updated his Instagram:


‘It’s so hard, I’m just not a funny person,’ he’d said, thirty minutes already gone to typing out caption possibilities and back clicking. She’d agreed, but not out loud.


‘Just write anything,’ she’d replied instead. ‘Literally just an emoji.’


Having already completed hers in accordance with his instructions, they went through more phrases that were strategically marketed to advertise another happy and well-crafted day in the life of a happy couple of young adults who were happy, happy, happy. After he’d come up with something heavily filtered and hashtagged, he’d wanted to leave:


‘God I hate Starbucks, they’ve literally spelt the easiest name wrong, “Tiomi” look! Are they all foreign or something? Let’s go.’

She hadn’t finished her drink, but they left.


‘No, you complete idiot,’ she’d wanted to say, ‘they deliberately mispell so sods like you are more likely to put it up on sodding Instagram. Bet you didn’t know that’


Why hadn’t she just said it?


‘Plus you just spent £4.50 on an embellished coffee, the joke’s almost definitely on you.’


Oof.


Oh, and we’re breaking up.’


If only.


So as she approached the final few stops before St James’s park, she began considering what she was actually going to say this time. Perhaps she’d just say that she thought they were growing apart, and only elaborate if he asked her to. Was that cowardly? She frowned with the effort of forming even that game plan, straight into the well-tailored armpit of a heavily deoderant-ed and candy crush playing stranger. He actually gave her a quick smile, which she reciprocated awkwardly. Smiles were always a shock on a TFL service. She leaned out, away from him and their mutual pole, towards the window to catch a glance at the red and blue station symbols flicking by. One more stop. The tube shifted back into motion and the overhead announcer began an extended edition of its everyday oracle, as if the words hadn’t been drilled into her head enough already, ‘SEE IT SAY IT SORTED’, with the same bored and easily mimickable inflections. As she kept her eyes fixed into her and the good-looking stranger’s no-eye-contact zone, (this was somewhere between his armpit and her phone), she imagined a trendy inner city English Lit teacher deciding to utilise these three S’s:


‘Hey look at this perfect example of an ascending tricolon in your day to day lives kids!’


The teacher would say this while almost bursting with excitement. Then they’d continue:


‘Get that handy trick into your creative writing!’


If she was being honest with herself, this three S’s business was probably exactly the kind of straight-talking tricolon she needed for dealing with Tommy. But it was always hard when you tended to crash out mid-most-sentences (she was just one of those people, she couldn’t say anything at all on group chats). It was harder still when Tommy and her had always left challenging conversations like politics, climate change, the future, very firmly alone because, to be honest, questioning his expensive restaurant choices was enough.


Crossing at the traffic lights that led into the front entrance of the park, she found a spot on a slightly damp bench and waited for him. She was by a lake, the other bench adjacent to her occupied by an email-writing young father and his toddler. The child was fast asleep in his tiny dungarees, with a face almost entirely engulfed under a half-on half-off ‘Lion King’ cap. She got out her phone to send Tommy her live location, typed a quick ‘im here now’, and reached into her bag for a book. The sun was already on its way down. Golden hour, she noticed with a grimace. This was another thing you learn about when your boyfriend was obsessed with Instagram. There were plenty of people about though and, if that wasn’t mellowing enough, flocks of very loud and very fat pigeons coated the pavement between the water and the grassy area. Surely this would prevent it becoming too romantic a setting? The funkypigeon jingle began to play in circles around her head, as seconds past between the time Tommy said he’d be with her and the present. Of course he was late. Stupid pigeons.


Her book rested on her lap, opened but with her phone covering the first page. It was an Emily Dickinson collection. She’d decided to be reading when she saw Tommy coming, because it would make her look like she’d been preoccupied in an intelligent way and that she couldn’t care less about the fact he was late because, obviously, she was absorbed in literary greatness.


But didn’t that mean she still cared what he thought?


Even if she liked Emily precisely because her work felt unpretentious, like the musings of an olden-day-Bridget-Jones, somehow that still wasn’t the point.

She reached into her back pocket to check her phone again, noticing as she did that the toddler on the other bench had opened his eyes. His head poked out of the crook of his father’s arm as he gave her the intrusive stare that babies are so good at. Then he grinned at her, with a bright red and chubby face, a non-committal smile for a complete stranger. Babies are so free with their love, she thought, such players. As there was still no sign of Tommy, and no message from him, she pulled a few half-hearted and self-conscious funny faces for the toddler, checking first to ensure his father wasn’t looking.


When the father caught her mid-cross-eyes she blushed.

‘No thanks for entertaining him! He doesn’t like to sit still’ the father responded, holding tight as the bundle of arms and legs, excited by the attentions of both adults now, began the process of extricating itself from his grip.


‘Not at all!’ She replied, laughing. ‘Nice to embrace your inner kid and all that.’


‘Oh yes, I definitely feel you there. I’m still a child.’


He leant in to get something from out of the buggy, a large multipack of Sun-Maid raisin boxes, before continuing:


‘Yes definitely still a child me, just one with slightly more painful hangovers.’


They laughed together again, awkwardly, before settling back into silence. The father gave the son one of the raisin boxes, and they began throwing them into the air, catching them, with a poor success rate, into each other’s mouths. The child was uncontrollable in his excitement, shaking his raisin box viciously, like an edible rain shaker.


‘Why don’t you feed the pigeons?’ The father asked the toddler, trying to distract him.


‘I HATE pigeons’, the toddler replied.


‘Good man’, Hattie thought.


‘Hattie.. HATTIE! Hey!’


Hattie had been so occupied in the father and toddler’s little domestic, that she hadn’t noticed Tommy’s approach. As usual, he finished off his text before reaching out to give her a hug, so her attention returned to the toddler. Eventually, he’d got so excited by the prospect of pigeon feeding that he’d leaped out of his dad’s lap onto the ground. As he jumped, the raisins sprayed out into the air like a contaminated water feature:


‘Hey watch out kid’, Tommy muttered when a singular Sun-maid missile caught him on the forehead.


The father noticed Tommy’s disgruntled look and quickly apologised to them both, guiding his son out of the way with an added nod in Hattie’s direction. She smiled back, also apologetically, and watched as the flock of pigeons plodded swiftly along in pursuit of the father, his child, and the trail of raisins. Hattie sighed.


‘So how are you?’ she began, ‘how was the gig?’

‘Yeah, so good.’

‘Sorry. I wanted to be there’.

Except she didn’t, because his gigs were overwhelmingly underwhelming. So why didn’t she say that?

‘Yeah yeah honestly it was such a great space, the acoustic was so good and the new drummer, Ralph, did I tell you about him? Yeah he played really well. Really good stuff, hopefully some good things will come out of it, we’re keeping our fingers crossed.’

After pausing to check he’d produced a suitably impressed face from Hattie (she faked one), he continued:

‘Yeah, really really good stuff. Dezza got a bit too drunk, we were all a bit tipsy to be honest...’

He continued along this conversation line for a while- something along the framework of ‘I drink, and sometimes I drink too much, and here’s another account of some stupid things I did when I drank too much’. She didn’t listen, she was trying to think of a way to intervene and get to the point.


But he was speaking into his phone the entire time anyway, she couldn’t catch his eye. He also would not stop dropping the t’s in her name, she’d always hated that. She picked at the paint on a metal panel of the bench, drawing her knees to her chest as she waited for him to finish. It was only when silence finally fell that she spoke:

‘You know acoustic is just a fancy way of saying the way something sounds in a room. Why don’t people just say that?’

Tommy was reading another text. He didn’t reply. She tried again:


‘Either way, it’s an utterly boring subject.’

‘One sec babe, I’ll be listening in just a sec’

Perhaps setting herself on fire would work? Probably not. Or maybe she could magically conjure up some tweezers and, one-by-one, begin plucking at the hairs on his carefully fashioned ‘messy’ music grad beard?

‘By the way, I also think that your sets consist of more stupid sound checking than simple, honest music.’

Anything registering yet? Tommy still didn’t look up, but he did reply this time:

‘Honest is such a good word for it, thank you that’s so nice of you to say! Yeah really I love hearing about what you think of my music, but can you just give me like five minutes? Need to reply to this, it’s the agent’

Say no, she thought.

‘Yeah, sure’, she replied. 

Heat rose to her face. At least if they’d been in a cafe she could have hid in the loo, had a quick cry then faked being okay again. But wasn’t the entire point that she shouldn’t care anymore? Controlling a few threatening tears, she tried to calm down. After a few minutes had passed he finally looked up from his text:

‘Actually I need more time to write this, do you want to just come back to mine tonight? It’ll be easier than you going back to Clapham’


‘Actually Tommy...’

‘Oh and my parents are out’

So that was what it was all about.

‘Nah, I need to go home. Now actually.’

She stood up quickly, before he could stop her, quickly checking her bum for wet patches and shoving the ridiculous Emily Dickinson back into her bag.

‘Hey did I do something wrong? Talk to me. There’s no need to act out’

‘I’ve been trying to talk to you’

‘Right... I did something wrong then?’

‘No. Look, it doesn’t matter I’ll see you around’

‘Okay whatever you want. Take a flyer for my next gig?’

Hattie laughed, a loud and heartfelt laugh that rose out, much louder than she’d expected, from the back of her throat. Perhaps the mature thing to do would be to explain. But then again, she doubted he was that stupid. He just didn’t care. She was replaceable.

‘Fine give me a bloody flyer then’

Plus, she felt replaceable when she was with him.


Walking out the park, still within his sight, she folded, folded and folded the flyer, shoving it into her coat pocket. It wasn’t quite throwing a drink in his face, or smashing his guitar (that would be fun), but it would do. The rest could be polished off over text. She knew he wouldn’t follow her, and the commuters that rushed past her on the race into rush hour sweeped her up instead. The remaining few colours of golden hour clashed and stained at their grey suits. Perhaps in a month or so, she’d be joining commuters on their collective journey home from work? If she could finally get an interview for a grad scheme that is. She paused before the ticket machine to meditate on this- the first few spare moments she’d catch in her new office, perhaps at her brand new desk on her first day of work, where she’d empty out her pockets. She’d smile as she let Tommy’s flyer fall out, along with all the out-of-date train tickets, past receipts, the odd slightly hairy raisin, and any other old rubbish she found in there. Toppling down, out of her life, straight into the recycling.