This is a slightly abridged version of a short story.
Ellie wanted rich friends. Of course, she already had enough friends, she knew that much, because she had read an article on The Guardian’s website about Britain’s Loneliness Epidemic and it had made her laugh. So, she couldn’t be too lonely herself, even if she didn’t see her friends as much as she’d have liked. If she was actually lonely, she wouldn’t have found other people’s loneliness so funny.
She needed wealthy friends because she needed friends who had good taste and the means to express that taste. She wanted friends who would invite her out to stylish venues. She wanted friends who would challenge her opinions and improve them the way the sea turns shards of old cider bottles into gems. She wanted friends she would have to dress nicely for. Even when they were broke (which would only be a temporary condition), they would look their best, because they would have that air about them. Ellie tried to imagine exactly what her new friends would wear, but the whole point was that she would not be able to predict the way they’d dress or anything else they might do.
Ellie knew she wouldn’t meet the particular sort of person she was after in a town like this. She would have to move to London. No more craft fairs and renting stalls at the Christmas Market for Ellie; she would devote herself to her career in Fine Art. Big paintings the size of dinner tables. She would become rich and the colours of her pallet would get richer with her. Big, luscious, moving paintings and quiet, unobtrusive paintings that proved her taste was perfectly formed, and that she could adapt it to fit anywhere.
She was fairly certain that she would have to become rich one day, and it would have to be through her art because no conventionally lucrative career seemed possible. She would probably need to go back to university, or even college to get some new A Levels, and time was marching on. Besides, when her love of painting burned its brightest, it was easy to convince herself that her fortune wasn’t far away. A streak of red, vein of gold running underneath.
She left most of her worldly possessions in her parents’ attic and loaded the rest into her Peugeot. Waiting for the windscreen to de-mist took time, parked outside her parents’ house with the engine throbbing and the neighbours’ cat sitting, licking itself right in front of the car. Her mother had time to run back inside and returned with a flask of hot coffee. Ellie was grateful; her breath was mist all around her face. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to run the heating and still be able to see the road ahead of her. As the motor rattled and the windscreen cleared, she watched the cat get bored and go home. Carefully wrapped canvases were strapped into the passenger seat beside her. It was so cold for October, why was she leaving so early in the morning? Her parents’ car was topped with frost and so was the privet hedge and the milk bottle on the doorstep. Goodbye to all that.
It was the end of back-to-school season too. As she drove off with a rapid, brittle wave, she saw children and teenagers with new wool coats over uniforms they’d already stretched and torn, freshly scuffed backpacks, tight scarves and hoods. In the last few weeks, as she’d planned her escape, the same clusters of teenagers had become familiar to her. Sometimes she saw them loitering and gossiping on park benches when she went out running. She had never really exercised before, but she was learning the difference between the thudding force of her whole body hitting the pavement, hard and pointed like a javelin, and using all the foot, and each part of the string of muscles in each leg to propel herself forward. She thought about her new friends and what they would see when they looked at her body.
She had noticed that she was having difficulty relating to other people. It felt like noticing a symptom that you know you should discuss with your GP. At first, she had trouble sketching people that she saw at the park sitting next to each other; on paper they seemed unconnected.
She’d walked back from the park one afternoon, planning to buy a vegetarian sausage roll at the bakery, and a man had pushed over a chalkboard outside the butcher. He turned and shouted at the young woman walking beside him. The woman had long, chestnut hair and dark, rectangular eyebrows. She was wearing a tight dress and walking stiffly, her face held like glass. The man continued to shout, and it was clear, from the woman’s features, that he hadn’t chosen a stranger to scream at and that the woman was only pretending not to know him. Later, he would convince her to acknowledge him again, and she would drop the act and soften her face. People looked over their shoulders at the couple.
Ellie regretted doing nothing. At the very least she should’ve asked the woman, excuse me, do you have the time? or something that would break up the pair’s violent rhythm. But instead, she had stopped, looked around as if she might catch the gaze of someone else and they would agree with their eyes that this is wrong. Then that person would know exactly what to do, they just needed her look to give them a push. But the shouting man had left them all there, uncertain and hovering, and the butcher had sent one of his apprentices out to right the chalkboard, which had fallen short of colliding with the door of a parked car. Ellie wanted very much to go back and take a different course of action, so much that she re-remembered it, decided that it had gone differently.
Ten minutes from her parents’ home, she reached the edge of the suburbs and the car continued downhill, past fields, hedges, the medieval village and towards retail parks and industrial sites. A giant Hobbycraft and an even bigger ASDA, occasional worrisome red lights on the dashboard and the engine growling. She heard a loud noise like maracas which shook and then died suddenly. The engine went back to its low hum, which was a relief because Ellie didn’t want to stop driving. Driving is much, much faster than walking, she thought, permitting herself to have the drowsy, obvious thoughts that people have in cars.
Her world was rapidly expanding and the world that she had never claimed as her own was disappearing. No more wondering if the local sixth formers recognised her at the sandwich shop at lunch time, in the park at dusk, the way she was starting to recognise them and their haircuts. The dreariness of the routine belonged to them now. They were the ones who would have to wait it out. Being an adult meant she could do whatever she wanted. A French bulldog waddled across the zebra crossing, a boy on a scooter.
She wasn’t convinced that she would miss anyone, although she did try to believe that she really would. Her feelings just weren’t urgent enough. She wanted to feel something like infatuation, a strength of feeling for a friend that was comparable to a romantic spark. Or the way she felt when she checked her email, and someone was asking her to sign a petition to prevent every bee in the world from dying. It was also difficult to think about new friends or romantic partners when she lived with her parents. It was too embarrassing, even if it was a reasonable way to save money. She couldn’t bear the thought of bringing someone home, sitting beside them in her room and listening to music together.
This in turn meant she was less willing to meet anyone at their homes, where they’d live differently, with housemates and spouses, rubbing their way of life right in her face. When she ran into Jenna in Oxfam, her first instinct had been to try and escape, but Jenna had caught Ellie first. She had suspected it was Jenna when she saw her in profile, then she had been stuck staring at the back of her head, talking herself out of it, believing this was just a stranger. But when Jenna turned around, Ellie immediately recognised the bright, dark eyes that met her own. She realised she’d forgotten Jenna’s last name.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a creak from the backseat. A piece of luggage had come loose, slid out of its position, and a delicate crunching sound suggested that it had landed on something fragile.
She wasn’t very far along in her journey yet, so when she pulled into the next service station it was a familiar one. She passed through a circle of lorries like Stonehenge and she parked up by the Cornish Pasty Company’s kiosk. The motorway on the other side of the trees sounded like rushing wind with a few birds trilling high over the top.
A cardboard box full of books had turned onto its side and slipped out of its seatbelt, tumbling onto a lamp she’d left behind the passenger seat, which hadn’t been protected by the paper it was wrapped in. She sighed, and was confronted by her own breath, hovering in front of her face. Her fingers were glowing red in the cold and as soon as the car was locked up, she thrust them straight into her coat pockets. She decided she wouldn’t tell her mum about the lamp – vintage, from grandma’s house – until she came to visit her in the new place in London. Now she would piss here at the service station. Her mother’s words from the long car journeys of her childhood ran through her head, praising Ellie for her cast iron bladder.
On her way back to the car an indignant looking seagull was standing in front of her. She met its beady eye and it toddled off, out of the way. Her key entered the car door and it popped into her head. Jenna White. Her surname was White, like the Biology teacher, Mrs White, but the two were not related.
Jenna had been Ellie’s first kiss, in an embarrassingly technical sense. Jenna had invited a close circle of eight or nine to go bowling, for her birthday. She was turning fourteen or fifteen and Ellie was a few weeks younger. It was the only birthday of Jenna’s that Ellie had attended and only because they sat near each other in History. Jenna was easy to get on with, but she had an inner circle that Ellie was not a part of. She straightened her long, dark hair every day until it looked slick and neat and polished. She listened to music that was emotional, heavy and dramatic, but her personality was light-hearted and warm.
After the game had ended, Jenna had kissed every attendee neatly and cleanly, a small peck onto each pair of closed lips. Ellie had stood still and closed her eyes to accept her kiss. It was a nicer first kiss than her first properly romantic kiss, years later, so she had tended to count the kiss with Jenna as her first instead. Jenna was unafraid of being gossiped about. She just liked her friends and didn’t feel any embarrassment about kissing. Ellie’s first thought, when their paths crossed in Oxfam, had been how pretty Jenna’s eyes were, without the dense black eyeshadow she’d worn every day at school.
They’d only decided to get coffee because there was a Starbucks next door to the Oxfam. Ellie made a comment that every Starbucks she’d set foot in had been dirty but when Jenna didn’t hear her comment, she hadn’t wanted to repeat herself where members of staff might overhear. But Ellie wasn’t wrong, there was a sense of disarray to the place, and the pair ended up sitting right beside the glass pane at the front of the shop where Ellie didn’t complain about a tear in the pleather of her armchair.
She had forgotten her hair dryer. It seemed like the sort of thing she’d be able to borrow at the Airbnb, but she would eventually have to buy a new one or ask her parents to send the forgotten one in the post. And she needed to wash her hair soon, it was getting a little heavy with grease. She touched the back of her head, pushed her fingers against the soft, heavy spot where hair was gathered above her ponytail.
The signs hanging over the road flashed 40 and the passage of the traffic slowed. She knew exactly where she’d left the hair dryer. She had run out of bags and boxes to pack her things and headed into the attic in search of more. That was where she’d found her old red backpack from school. The backpack was probably still in the porch, underneath her mother’s little blue side table with a bowl on top half-filled with smooth, glass pebbles.
The car on the right of her crept forward. A suit hanging up in a window slid past. Whenever she took her next break, she’d probably find a text from her mum about the forgotten bag, frantically asking what to do as if that was a question Ellie had an answer for.
When she’d found the backpack in the attic it was already heavy with old exercise books. She’d wanted to set fire to them, but knew her mother would complain about wastefulness and there was no way for her to keep a fire a secret, so she spent an hour tearing out blank pages that could be used in the future for shopping lists and scribbling down reminders and put the rest of the books into the recycling box, covering them up with magazines.
Jenna had looked smoothed out and a lot less scrappy as a twenty-something. That was to be expected, of course. As a teenager she’d committed more fervently than Ellie to looking alternative. The line of her jaw was a little softer now, her hair was tastefully highlighted, and her natural waves were left untamed and she was wearing an olive green military jacket that had an ambiguous, anonymous look. Her skin no longer had the stiff, powdery texture that Ellie had noticed on so many of her peers at school.
‘It’s so funny running into you,’ Jenna said, ‘I didn’t even know you still lived here.’
‘I can’t believe it’s been nearly a decade,’ Ellie replied, ‘you look the same.’
‘That’s not true!’
‘It is! I mean, it’s true in all the good ways.’
‘You mean I’m not emo anymore.’
‘Yeah basically. But you still look young enough that you could go to a My Chemical Romance concert and it wouldn’t be weird.’
‘You’re still very funny.’
Ellie beamed, although it was the first time, she’d thought of herself as funny. It was interesting that she was remembered for it.
‘I’m surprised you’re back here, I thought you were the kind of person who wanted to travel a lot. Did you say you were going to move to London?’
‘Oh no, I don’t think I was ever that fussed about London. Maybe you’re thinking of Jess Liu or Luke McMann. Or, did he end up going to Oxford?’
Jenna shrugged and the conversation stalled. Ellie tried again.
‘What are you up to these days? Are you working here or getting the train into town?’
‘Yeah, do you remember Cooper Books?’
‘I’m working there. I’m part-time on that and I’m doing a PhD on the side. Actually, the PhD is pretty much a full-time job. And, you know, I’m living at home to save while I study which is, well, its own challenge.’
‘Oh wow, what are you studying? Or researching?’
Jenna took a deep breath and looked out of the window as she gathered her thoughts, the way people studying PhDs tend to do when asked to summarise their work. Ellie instinctively followed her gaze and there, on the other side of the high street was the butcher’s shop, its chalkboard righted.
‘So, I was teaching at a primary school but that didn’t… it wasn’t what I thought it would be. Now I’m researching how primary schools incorporate textiles and sensory stuff in art lessons.’ She waved her hand to suggest there was much more she could say but articulating it would ruin the informality of the coffee.
Along with the exercise books, the red backpack had contained her old Gameboy Colour and a small selection of games in slightly crumpled cardboard boxes. There had been others which she had sold. Now it seemed silly, whenever it was that she’d sold the games, she must have thought they were vintage enough for her to make some real money. She should’ve waited. She’d have made so much more money this year.
She allowed it to distract her from packing. The Gameboy didn’t have any batteries, so she took some out of her vibrator. She inserted the cartridge for Pokémon Blue because it was the game that she was most curious about. There was movement on the screen. There might be a save file on the cartridge and it might contain useful information.
She had loved Pokémon because she was a creative child. Adults said so all the time, what a creative mind this little girl has. A hundred and fifty monsters could be shuffled and reshuffled into infinite different teams of six. Each monster in the team could learn just four moves out of thousands. She could commit to nurturing the tiniest monster from the very start of the game into a powerful ally, or she could wait until the precipice of a climactic final battle and replace half the team she’d grown so attached to with much mightier creatures.
Pokémon allowed her to exercise her creativity but also her spite. There was only space on the cartridge to save one game, one story. If she found herself frustrated with her own monsters, or if she was simply bored, it was easy to delete all her hard work and start again. It wasn’t even necessary to see a game through to the end. Sometimes she would delete her save file simply because she was in an especially dramatic mood. She would create a new game and sometimes the pang of regret would be immediate. The team she had raised, their specific stats and names and achievements were all gone and the best she could do was to try and recreate them from scratch.
When she opened up the game after it had been left untouched for fifteen years, there was no save file to open. There was only an empty space for her to start a new game. It was a little frustrating to be denied something to gawk at, but she had to admit, this was the metaphor that she wanted.
There was a certain contentedness to the way Jenna talked about her life which seemed consistent with the person Ellie had once thought she was. They had the same opportunities to feel embarrassed about themselves and about who they were, but Jenna didn’t have those feelings. Music, film and television made good fuel for the conversation and it felt safe to stay after their respective drinks had gone cold.
Ellie didn’t want to talk about her day job or her sense of her own career and Jenna was polite and didn’t push. But Ellie couldn’t quite keep away from her most painful topics. She told Jenna about an event she’d attended recently, the opening of a new exhibition at a contemporary art space she admired. She didn’t mention that she had been too shy to invite anyone at her latest temp job. She was already preparing to disappear.
She was surprised when Jenna recognised the name of the gallery.
‘That’s so weird, I went to that party.’
‘Yes, it’s funny we didn’t run into each other. I did get there quite late, though.’
‘Oh, that’s probably it. I left pretty early. I had to get the train back, then I had to get up early the next day.’
Ellie had enjoyed the exhibition, but this had only been the most recent in a string of events that had left her deflated. Sometimes she would encounter the same people at these events, people she recognised and had maybe exchanged a few words with. But whenever she met someone for the second time, she could never conjure up something from their first meeting to hang a conversation on. She could talk about the art that was put in front of her, but she could never spin it into a friendship.
‘I did an internship at that gallery actually,’ Jenna added, ‘it was in the early months of the PhD.’
‘That sounds amazing! Was that part of the CreateLab internship program? I applied for one of those placements this year but I didn’t get anywhere.’
‘No, I – well, I knew Ken from art school – he gave a talk at my uni, years ago. I pitched him and Mariska on the kind of research I was working on, how people from different age groups interpret works of art differently. Honestly, I think the PhD thing dazzled them a bit? Like it gave the gallery a bit of intellectual sheen. I dunno. It was okay. They got some free work out of me. I probably spent more time on admin than research.’
‘I didn’t know you went to art school.’
‘Yeah! I got quite disillusioned by it, though. That’s sort of why I went back and trained as a teacher instead.’
By the time Ellie needed to check the street address of the Airbnb, her phone’s battery was nearly completely down to zero. She turned down the light level to preserve power, but it was nearing evening and the sky was already getting darker. Once she was able to check the address, she turned off the phone and chanted the house number under her breath so that she wouldn’t forget it as she dashed from her car to the door and rang the bell.
‘That’s a lot of stuff,’ the landlord said slowly, holding the door as Ellie returned from her fourth trip back from the car with more bags, ‘you know it’s a single room?’
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘it’s fine! By the way, do you happen to have a hair dryer I can use?’
‘I have to get going,’ Jenna sighed, ‘this has been so nice though. Do you want to exchange numbers and maybe meet up again? I’m not around next week but I’m free again from the Tuesday after that.’
Then her smiled changed, her whole face seemed sillier and rounder, and she added ‘you’re so easy to talk to.’
‘You can have my number, but I won’t be around that week.’
‘Oh, what are you doing?’
‘Actually, I’m leaving. I’m leaving town. It sounds really dramatic when you say it like that, doesn’t it?’
‘Do you mean that you’re moving?’
‘That’s what I should’ve said, yeah.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Oh, I thought you weren’t fussed about being in London. Did you get a job there?’
‘Oh, okay.’ She pulled her jacket around her shoulders and stood up. ‘Well I hope the move goes well for you.’