The next time she looks up, the man in the corner has finished his drink. He is alone now; his date must have left. He rolls up one of his shirt sleeves, and reveals that he has numbers written on the inside of his wrist in biro. He leans back in his chair.
She’s been coming to this pub every Friday after work. Her train isn’t until an hour after she finishes, and the office closes when her shift ends. She orders the same drink each time, but the staff don’t recognise her yet or what she wants. The man in the corner is sitting in her seat. When she was younger, she used to feel anxious when people moved out of the classroom seating plan. She feels like this when someone takes her table in the pub. It’s a good seat because she can drink in peace, reading the articles she has left open in multiple tabs on her phone.
Sometimes she watches the other people in the pub too. There was a first date where the girl ordered wine and the boy ordered coke. She imagined that the relationship would be short-lived, that they’d see each other for a while, and if nothing went wrong, they’d maybe meet each other’s friends. That’s when it would end, when he realised that she regularly drank too much wine, and he just wanted to watch his favourite films with someone.
Tonight, she has stayed longer in the pub than usual. The wine tastes like peanuts. It makes her thirstier. She could switch to gin, but she’s learned not to mix. She could ask the man in the corner about the wine, if he knows what makes it taste that way, but he’s been drinking pints of lager all night. She wonders what his date was drinking. She wasn’t watching closely enough and now the table has been cleared. The date looked like the kind of woman who drank cocktails, who would smile nervously when she entered a place like this; the kind of woman who would nudge her handbag further under the table as the evening went on, and then would call her friend on her way home, or the next morning, and say, He took me to a pub, and wrinkle her nose.
This morning, she wrote the train schedule on the back of an old ticket. She does this every morning, planning to get a train that will get her to the office too early, before it has opened, because she is relatively new and still wants to make a good impression. The later train, if delayed, would make her run to the office, and arrive sweaty and windswept. She finds the ticket in her coat pocket and decides to have another drink. She has probably missed the next train, anyway.
When a member of staff passes her table, she says, Another glass of wine, please. She feels a little drunk.
The first time she got really drunk her boyfriend wanted to have sex. He was older, and his friends asked her why she hadn’t done it yet. They did it in the bathroom. The lights were too bright. The whole time she looked at the yellow duck on the edge of the bath and wondered why people think that yellow ducks belong in bathrooms. Her boyfriend tasted of cheap cider; she could taste the plastic bottle on his lips. It was alarming, like when her gums start bleeding after brushing her teeth too hard. A bead of sweat dropped from the boyfriend’s forehead to her nose, and she tried to wipe it away without him seeing, not wanting to embarrass him. Later on, her friend was too drunk. She stuck two fingers down her friend’s throat to make her feel better. When she got home, she forced her fingers down her own throat too.
When she first came to this pub, a couple of months ago, she thought it was disgusting. The tables were covered in a film of grease. It reminded her of her grandparents’ house when they got too old to know when things needed cleaning. Now she is used to lifting her glass with a little more force to unstick it from the table. Sometimes she draws patterns in the grime with her fingernail. Tonight, she has drawn a fish. This morning, she read her horoscope on the train. She doesn’t normally read her horoscope, but the paper left on the seat next to hers was folded, and it was the first page she saw. The horoscope said: You are a fish. You will come to understand this. She found this funny because it seemed like something more suitable for a fortune cookie, and because she had once had a boyfriend who, during arguments, told her that she kissed like a koi carp. He tasted of cigarettes. Sometimes he would say to her, What are you, stupid? and he was right, she’d think. She was very stupid.
The man in the corner probably tastes of the beer he is drinking. She imagines, however, that he tastes of gin, maybe with a hint of lime. She has noted the taste of every man she’s kissed. Some men are tasteless. These are the ones she remembers most. The man in her seat looks around the pub: tired and anxious, she thinks. She decides that the man looks this way because he skipped lunch today, and is drinking beer on an empty stomach. Her mother told her to never drink beer. Nice girls don’t drink beer.
Her favourite part of dating someone is the period where no one else knows about them, where they are just two people who know only the outlines of one another, where she is deciding if she likes them, and she can see things going well. In her current favourite TV programme, the protagonist has three recurring love interests. In most TV programmes or films, or in fact, in most of her friends’ lives, there is a person who comes in and out, a constant assurance of possible love. This isn’t the case for her.
It’s become routine to meet someone here. She once met a man who kept on saying ATM machine while explaining his work, and she said something like, I hope you didn’t forget your PIN number. He didn’t catch the joke, and made an excuse to leave about ten minutes later. She finds herself unable to leave dates early, even when the man has eaten all her chips without asking, or insulted her, or said cunt a few times in the first half an hour. On these dates, she orders gin. The more drunk she gets, the more it tastes like water. When she talks to friends about these terrible men, they say, Why didn’t you go to the toilet and call me? I would have pretended to cry for you.
This pub is among the few places she knows well. When friends visit, and she walks them around this new city, they point to things and ask what they are. She admits that she doesn’t know, and she feels embarrassed, as though this reveals how much time she spends alone, at home, scrolling through old photographs or text messages on her phone. She has figured out which rows in her local cinema are most likely to contain other women watching films alone, and books a seat among them.
Last week, the date went better, until it was time for them to leave. She realised that he was staying in a hotel and wasn’t going to tell her which one. They had sat next to each other on the train, not touching, and it was like she had just received bad news and didn’t know the appropriate response. She listened to a mother argue with her daughter about the daughter’s pierced nose.
The daughter said, My clothes are the reason I haven’t got a job yet, not my face.
The mother said, You’re an absolute bitch.
The train stopped on the tracks. She fell asleep with her head against the window, and by the time they reached her flat, she wanted him to leave, but he looked at her expectantly, hovering by the kitchen door. She did it, and afterwards, he insisted on sleeping in her bed. It was too late to catch a train, and a taxi would be too expensive, he said. She lay awake and tried not to move, thinking that this one tasted of custard creams.
When she moved into her flat, a studio above a chicken shop, her mother cried at the number of locks on the door and the mould on the shower curtain. Her mother had checked inside all the drawers and the oven, and spent the day cleaning everything. When she left, the room smelt of her mother. Sometimes when she is shopping, she opens bottles of cleaner to find the one that will bring the scent back. She has decided that she won’t let her mother visit again.
Are you seeing anyone? her mother asks, every time she calls.
Not in the two days since you last asked, she says. And then, regretting it: No need to worry, I’m fine on my own. I’m one of those people who will always be fine on their own.
Then she changes the subject, and hears her mother sigh quietly before talking about her day.
Sometimes she leaves the men at the bottom of the stairs to her flat, having been unable to stop them from walking her home. The men stand with their hands in their pockets, waiting for an invitation, swaying forward like they might follow her. On these nights, she’s grateful for all the locks on her door. She usually waits up, until she’s certain they’re not outside anymore. After these dates, she wakes up on her sofa, curled into its back.
The man in her seat orders another pint. When she walked in, she paused by the table, just for a moment, because she was taken aback to see someone in her seat. The man looked up just as she began to walk away. She’s not seen him in here before, so she almost forgives him for his error. If she was serious about a person, she wouldn’t bring them here. It smells damp, as though it should be the place where the beer is kept, not served. The men she meets like it though. The choice of pub surprises them, and then they know what she is after, and they like that. If she were a man, she wouldn’t bring a woman here; she’d take her to a nice restaurant, or the bar around the corner with the multi-coloured lights and the strange cocktails.
She went on one of those dates when she first moved here. The man, who tasted of Parma Violets, took her out for steak and ate his rare, which made her feel sick. Before that, she kept on imagining him kissing her, the blood running down her chin. He liked to suck her neck and she was worried that he might do it too hard. She let him though, and covered the marks with a scarf for a few days, so that no one in the office would ask anything.
The man in the corner must be waiting for a train. There is no other reason for him to have stayed here so long, especially after his date has left. She doesn’t want to walk to the train station yet, or from the train station to her flat, along the canal where people eat kebabs in twos, their hands glowing pink in the cold, the paper around the kebabs turning clear with grease.
One night she went down to the chicken shop beneath her flat because she didn’t want to walk to the supermarket. She thinks there is something sad about being in a supermarket, alone, past eight p.m. It was probably sad to be in the chicken shop alone, too. But it seemed to matter less. She queued at the chicken shop, sure that her hair was catching the oil. She knew she’d need to have a shower after she’d eaten. The yellow and blue diamond-shaped tiles gave her a headache, like being inside a kaleidoscope. The man serving her was staring in that way that men sometimes do.
The man from the chicken shop kept his yellow and red polo shirt on. He unsurprisingly tasted of grease. She left the chicken and chips in their paper box on the kitchen counter and ate them for breakfast the next morning. She’s been avoiding the chicken shop ever since, but sometimes she sees him looking at her window before he goes to work.
When a friend last stayed here, she’d cooked breakfast and made smoothies, as though she were a person used to doing these things. It’s all falling asleep, the friend had said over coffee that morning, hungover. It’s all falling apart, she had meant to say, and she was right, it was.
Her last boyfriend used to punch things when he came home drunk, or pull the mattress off the bed if she pretended to still be asleep. She started to wait up for him, watching the small TV in the bedroom until he came home. Then she’d move down to the sofa in the cold living room, when he shouted at her, or fell asleep on the toilet.
She is drawing a fish repeatedly into the grime on the edge of the table. The man in the corner is staring. She expects him to look away, as most people do when they have been caught, but he doesn’t. The man in the corner goes back to writing something on his beer coaster. She could go over and ask him about what he’s writing; there is nothing to stop her. She imagines that he’s writing more numbers on the beer coaster because he’s run out of space on his wrist. She’ll ask him what it’s about, leaning across the table.
He’ll drink from his glass, then say, Wouldn’t you like to know? It’s a secret.
She’ll say, Oh really?
No, actually, he’ll laugh. I don’t know why I said that.
She’ll raise her eyebrows.
I promise you it’s boring, he’ll say. Can I get you a drink to make up for it?
It’s possible that he doesn’t taste of anything, not even the beer he’s been drinking all evening. She pushes her chair back, as though she’s going to stand up. Her stomach is heavy with drink.
He picks up his phone. Hello? he says. He blinks rapidly. He says, I know. Then, more forcefully, I know. I’m sorry. He rolls down his shirt sleeve and holds the phone between his cheek and shoulder as he buttons it up. His sleeves are creased.
You know when I was living on the camp? the man says. You know, where my dad worked? There was a swimming pool and a Spar – the shop – on the camp. One day I went swimming and I left my bike outside, and somehow I’d left my bag outside the shop. And then I got home and realised I’d left it. So I tried to go back for it. I cycled on my bike and it must have been like a mile away. I was just a kid. So I tried to get back, but I couldn’t get within four-hundred yards of the shop. I went home and told my mum. She called me an idiot. She had to call the camp manager. They thought that my bag might be a bomb.
He laughs on the last word, making it sound like he’s coughing it out.
She thinks that the person on the phone must be his girlfriend or wife. She is angry that he has taken another woman on a date. She taps her glass with her fingernails. She shakes her leg, wanting to get up and leave, but he has already stood up, and the space is too small for two people to exit. The man puts on his coat. He doesn’t fasten the buttons. He walks out and doesn’t glance back.
She takes the train ticket out of her pocket and checks the schedule. She’s missed the last train. She’ll need to get a taxi.
Jenna Clake’s debut collection of poetry, Fortune Cookie, won the Melita Hume prize in 2016. It received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2018 and was shortlisted for a Somerset Maugham Award in the same year. Her second collection, Museum of Ice Cream, was published by Bloodaxe and featured as one of The Telegraph’s best new poetry books in 2021. Her debut novel, Disturbance, is forthcoming from Trapeze and W.W. Norton in summer 2023.