We are proud to launch the Aitken Alexander Isolation Series with ‘True Love’, a new story by Booker-shortlisted writer Daisy Johnson.
We had been together for two months when quarantine began. We were in the realm of casual dating, restaurant going, walks in the park, the occasional cinema trip. We were on an exploration. We were having sex a lot. We talked about books and films and once I spoke to her Mum on the phone when she happened to ring. We were trying things during sex that I hadn’t tried with other people and which were structurally tricky. She had met my friends on an awkward picnic when one of them tried to repeatedly feed her a sausage roll – she was vegan – and the other kept talking about my past relationships. I had not yet met her friends but she had said she would arrange it soon. There was a wedding in a couple of months that we had talked tentatively about my going to. We were in the honeymoon stage and nothing was tied down or certain and we took nothing from one that the other didn’t want to give. We were cruising, drinking a lot. Margot lived with her parents so mostly she came to mine. I had lived in my flat for about two years and a new flatmate had moved in a couple of months earlier. We were acquaintances who occasionally met in the kitchen or the hallway, had awkward conversations about the weather or possible parties, sometimes passively aggressively cleaned the bathroom together. He smoked a lot of weed but I had loud sex and sometimes came home drunk after a Margot date and ate his Doritos. He signed for my parcels, I once put away the freezer food for a Tesco order he had got and then forgotten about.
There had been murmurings about the virus but nothing concrete for a couple of weeks. Occasionally there would be people in the streets wearing masks and plastic gloves and some of the pubs were emptier then they would be normally. Margot sent me news reports about it and sometimes rang for me to comfort her; she was worried about her parents, she was anxious about her job and money. My Dad said it was a conspiracy theory but my Mum had started – mostly in defiance of him – stockpiling bird seed and cat food. The virus involved severe vomiting and diarrhoea, a fever, a strong chance of dehydration. It had seemed like nothing and nothing and nothing and then it was something and overnight we were quarantined. Margot was at my flat and we were watching old horror films – we’d started with Dawn of the Dead which was my favourite – and waiting for a pizza order that never came. I could hear my flat mate moving around in his room and it sounded as if he was rearranging furniture or doing exercises. Margot was on her phone and was missing some of the good bits of the film which annoyed me but not intensely. She stood up and rang her Mum and I said, what are you doing? And she said, something’s happening. My flatmate opened his door and came out into the sitting room and stood looking at me holding his phone. What? I said. I didn’t know where my phone was. He said, ummm and Margot said, shit, Mum, shit. I stood up too. We were all standing in an awkward triangle and I thought then that if the film had been quieter I would have been able to hear their heartbeats, the motions of their insides.
My flatmate went into the bathroom and Margot started putting on her shoes. I looked for my phone under the sofa pillows and in the bedroom. Margot was speaking to her Mum in French and I couldn’t keep up although I could tell that she was losing it, that she would soon have lost it to the point of complete panic and I wasn’t sure what to do about that. It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet seen her face in any other shape than pleasure and that she looked very different as she broke down. She looked at me then.
Where is my coat? She said. Get me my coat now.
I started looking under the cushions for her coat or perhaps my phone. I was losing it too although I didn’t know yet what was happening. There was a sound from the bathroom loud enough to cover the noise of the film. I found the remote control and muted the TV. Margot stopped moving and held the phone a little away from her head and together we listened to the sound of my flatmate vomiting. Margot said something to her Mum and then started crying and hung up. I followed her into the kitchen. She was rushing around. I said her name but she didn’t seem to hear me. She was getting tins out of the cupboard and counting them, she was counting tea bags and pasta. I didn’t know what was going on. I said, please, tell me what’s happening and something about the way I said it got through to her and she stopped and told me and then we sat on the floor of the kitchen together.
I’m going to have to stay here, she said.
I didn’t say anything because I really didn’t want that to happen but I didn’t know how to phrase it so that I still sounded like a good person.
Your flat mate has it, she said, and if I go home I’ll take it with me. I’ll have to stay here.
She held my hand and talked about how it would be OK and I sat and tried to think of how to get rid of her.
In the night we heard him in the bathroom, throwing up, and in the morning the kitchen would be disturbed, noodle fragments on the counter and in the microwave, yogurt lids left on the side. Margot – fearless, raging – left him stern, typed notes which she printed off and we both signed in solidarity with one another. Once she printed off, also, the government guidelines and sellotaped them to the fridge, circling the most important ones. After using shared spaces disinfect thoroughly. In the case of diarrhoea or vomiting do not use a shared bathroom unless absolutely necessary. He did not tear them down – it was unclear whether he had read them at all. Things in the fridge moved and Margot started marking the position of our yogurt and milk with post-it-notes and then throwing them out if they looked like they might have been tampered with.
I had not expected love to be forced upon me. I had not expected, quite yet, to have to care about someone as much as I cared for my parents or my closest friends. We might as well have been married for thirty years, our children grown up and moved away, both of us grumpily entering retirement and trying to find things to keep ourselves occupied. I had not expected, quite so soon, to have had to encounter her small annoyances, her everyday smells, the fluctuating moods which I would never have seen if we were still only dating rather than cohabiting. I had also not been quite prepared for her to see these things in me, to open myself up so thoroughly to this land of no-secrets. It had been a good two months and it was sexy to know so little about one another, to be able to come dressed and made up and emotionally stable to the bar or restaurant and offer only what either of us were willing to offer. This was not the way it was now. She was anxious and paranoid and read the news as soon as she woke up, had loud conversations with friends about the worst-possible-scenarios and the time frame; often she would wake me with a sentence from an article, cherry-picked for its awfulness. She was messy and expansive, she borrowed clothes without asking – she had so few clothes, of course – and started arguments which she insisted on calling debates. Yes, she was all these things but I was aware that in return I was emotionally stunted, inadequately prepared for intimacy, protective of a space which I was finding increasingly difficult to call ours rather than mine. My family were expert at avoiding conflict, even of the smallest kind, and I found it difficult to change myself to fit with her debating, the small arguments she insisted on having, the way she talked about my flat mate. We were unprepared. I wanted to take her and shake her and say those words. We were unprepared.
One night I woke and someone was shouting. For a moment I thought – still asleep really – that it was me, that I was screaming in my dreams, but then I rolled over and Margot was gone and the door to our room was open in a way it hadn’t been for a month. The noise was enormous. Cats were fighting or dying, there was an air raid. I stumbled up and out. The lights in the kitchen were on and there was the stench of instant noodles and sriracha. Margot was in the doorway of the kitchen with her legs and arms flung wide like a grizzly bear, her head tipped back to add to her height. I moved cautiously to stand behind her. Through the frame of her arms I could see my flat mate. He looked dazed and sullen, his tracksuit bottoms stained, his beard grown and uneven. Even from behind Margot I could smell the sickness on him – or imagined I could – the scent of shit and vomit, of unwashed skin. Margot was raging and screaming so loudly, the words pouring out so that I couldn’t make out what she was saying. My flat mate squinted at her, made a move as if to try and get past and then retreated. I could see the signs of his foraging in the kitchen, a couple of the cupboards open, steam from the kettle and from the bowl he was holding. Fucking gloves, Margot screamed, fucking maybe fucking gloves and looking again I saw that he was bare handed, that he had not seen – or had not cared to see – the carefully printed out advice Margot had stuck to the fridge.
You are the most selfish, Margot panted, you are the most awful, selfish human being I have ever, I just cannot, I need to, I fucking, you can’t possibly.
She was running out of ammo. I touched her shoulder and she spun towards me as if to give me some of the same, her mouth twisted in the way I had come to recognise as meaning she was going to cry soon. I took her hand and we went back into our room together and she lay down on the bed and put the pillow over her head and I went – without discussion – into the wardrobe to try and give her some privacy. The wardrobe was dank and stunk of the shoes we had piled in there and there wasn’t room to sit down so I stood and pretended not to be able to hear as Margot cried into the pillow. I wondered if she could go. It was not really safe but I wondered if she would risk it now. It was possible I loved her. No. It was possible that after a proper amount of time I could love her. In the last month I had seen her inserted into the future and now every coming memory had her in it – we would go to the supermarket together and hold hands, we would rent a cottage in Wales and walk or go to the beach – though it was also possible that I would love her more if she went. But she couldn’t go. I climbed out of the cupboard and went to the bed and put my arms around her and I said, something, I can’t quite remember what it was, about how I was there and I would always be there and it was awful but it had brought us together, it had cemented us together and I loved her. She raised a sodden face in my direction. I love you, I said. It was true. It was true in the time of virus and maybe it would be true afterwards. She was staring at me, her eyes red and a little glazed. You are wonderful, she said and she put her head on my shoulder. I really like you a lot, she said.
Things got worse. I regretted saying that I loved Margot because now I was just waiting for her to say she loved me and she was just waiting for my flat mate to go use the kitchen or the bathroom so she could go and shout at him and I think my flat mate was waiting until he thought Margot was asleep so he could go use the kitchen and bathroom without being shouted at. Margot who had stopped sleeping. I would wake in the night and find her crouched at the door to the hallway, listening with her head against the wood, or out in the corridor frantically disinfecting light switches and door knobs. When I tried to speak to her she would come over and hold me too tight for comfort and say it was going to be OK, she was going to deal with it, I just needed to relax more. I tried to make myself seem relaxed but it was difficult because I was not relaxed. Sometimes when I heard my flat mate going into the kitchen I would follow Margot out and try and mediate between the two of them, change the conversation. I would suggest isolation film nights or board game sessions and they would look at me as if I was insane and then keep arguing. Their arguments were circular, like broken labyrinths, and the aim of every one was that neither of them could back down and neither of them could let the other have the last word. Sometimes Margot would follow him at a distance around the kitchen, bleaching where he’d been, tutting, making comments in French and sometimes he would break down and start shaking or laughing hysterically and she would watch his spit falling onto the floor between them and then scream and scream at him. I waited for her to tell me that she loved me. Even if only in the time of virus, even if only temporarily.
I had some sleeping pills left over from a bout of insomnia a few years earlier. At the time I’d been so wired that sometimes three or four days would pass with only two hours of sleep, the world hazy with hallucination. Margot was adamant she wouldn’t take them. We had a long argument which kept dying down and then rising up again, reignited. I couldn’t feel my hands or the sides of my face, sometimes it felt as if my stomach was churning and I became silently convinced that I was getting sick. I lay on the floor with my face against the carpet and words to a song that had been on the radio often before lockdown rose into my brain and went around and around, shutting out the sound of Margot’s yelling. She was a free human, she said, she was an independent human. She was crying again. The words of the song circled like birds of prey; there was a particular line I kept beginning and then finding myself unable to finish. Please, I said, and though I wasn’t sure if I was really speaking to Margot or to myself, she came and sat next to me and said she would try, she was sorry she was so difficult to live with, she was sorry.
The pills knocked Margot out for fourteen hours at a stretch. The time was enormous and I didn’t know what to do with it. I listened to music and cleaned the kitchen hoping to please her when she woke up. I tried to work but instead found myself, hours later, watching a bad, old sitcom which I had seen so many times as a teenager I knew nearly all the lines. There was so much else I could watch, so many new films, so many series I had been recommended and not had the time to see before isolation. But the newness scalded me, it was so unfamiliar, it was impossible to know what was going to happen in every episode, the once bracing element of surprise now awful. I could do yoga or learn a new language, I could improve myself in some instrumental way so that once this was all over I would be better, a better member of society.
I went outside. The first time I did it I was so scared I couldn’t stop shaking. It was late, three o’clock perhaps, and I walked out of the apartment building and down the road. They had turned off all the street lamps – we didn’t need them – and the darkness was a darkness that city had never seen before, the stars like pin-stuck holes, cars and post boxes swimming towards me, the sudden shock of lines on the road beneath my feet. There was a steep hill I had always avoided but which I walked up now, slowly at first and then quickly, face down. The silence felt interminable but it wasn’t: occasionally out of it emerged some underwater sound from the buildings around me, the bark of a shout or the crackly sound of TV laughter. The adrenaline pooled in my joints and when I put my hands to my head my hair had filled with static and risen like candyfloss. I started to run as fast as I could. Everything burned, the pain was brilliant like every streetlight had come on. I ran and ran and then dropped to my knees and put my head against the pavement and waited there for something, for something, for some sort of sign that came or did not come.
I started going out every night. I would warm Margot some milk and she would crush her sleeping pill and mix it in and then drink it, her cat-tongue, her blown pupils. I would hold her and she would fall asleep slowly, occasionally seeming to fight the drowsiness and rise out to snap something at me about bleach or my flatmate before sinking back under. There was a beautiful serenity to putting on my shoes while she slept, fastening the buttons on my coat. Sometimes in the nights there was the howl of ambulance lights and I would have to hide but mostly there was nothing and I would walk long loops, occasionally breaking into a shambling run before stopping. That song which had become stuck in my head was there with me, going over and over, always giving up at that one line I could not get past. Sometimes in the pitch black of the dying city I saw – or thought I saw – the shapes of other people walking or running, sudden rushes of movement ahead of me in the road. We were all out there. We were all walking and then running and running and running.
I wondered if my flatmate knew what I was doing. Once I found him in the kitchen when I got back and his eyes gave nothing away, he did not say whether he had heard me going or coming back in, the sound of the door which I pulled so carefully into place. He was so sick that he didn’t seem able to speak anyway, the maw of his mouth so awful and repellent, the sips of water he took standing over the sink. I sometimes made him thin soups and watched him eating them or put on gloves and washed his bedsheets for him while he shivered on the sofa. Sometimes I found him passed out on the sitting room floor and would close the door gently on the sight. Margot and I didn’t use the bathroom anymore but had a big Le Creuset saucepan which we kept in the wardrobe in my room and emptied into the kitchen sink. Margot’s hate for him was so large and the sleeping pills didn’t seem to help. She was groggy in the days and found it hard to focus on more than one thing. She would say his name in a low voice and then list his faults and flaws, the list growing longer and longer each day. The sleeping pills made her mouth dry and she would drink pint glasses of water as she spoke, her throat moving, her eyes tipped fuzzily to the ceiling.
Once she said: if this goes on we will have no choice. She was lying on the floor of my bedroom and she said the words so simply that I didn’t feel able to question what she might mean, what we would have no choice but to do. I wondered if she meant that we should kill him. I had not considered this before but once the thought was there it was difficult to let it go. I knew that if she decided this was the right thing to do then I wouldn’t be able to disagree with her; she was logical and good at arguments in a way I was not. I became very fixated on what the scenario would be, how it would happen. Days were so long and so short and it was so impossible to find anything new to do: I went out into the forbidden city, I waited for Margot to say she loved me, I wondered how she would kill him.
When she did it I would hide in the cupboard and watch episodes of Friends until it was done. I would help her with the clean up and I would support her with her decision but she would be the one to do the act and she would decide how she wanted to do it. Except – walking the long, dark road – I wondered if actually she would be so persuasive that it would be me who would kill him. I would ambush him in the bathroom or the kitchen and there would be a tussle but he would be weak from sickness and I would be strong with love and I would cave his head in or strangle him with the shower curtain or drown him in the kitchen sink which I had filled with water in preparation.
After it was done Margot would come out of the bedroom and get down on both knees in front of me and say that she loved me. My dead flat mate would be lying in the bath or on the kitchen floor or half on and half off the sofa and Margot – keeping her distance – would say that she had never loved anyone the way she loved me; that it was not just the extremely stressful circumstances, it was true love. It was true love.