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The moment after waking up is the happiest of my day, because for one second, I don’t remember what my life is. I have trouble sleeping because I’m scared of someone breaking in. It started when my dog was taken away by animal protection services after my neighbour Teri had complained again about his nighttime barking, although probably the seeds were sown when I started living alone.
Usually I’m woken by my fire alarm in the morning. I never took off the plastic packaging it came in but still it goes off all the time. I used to follow up on its threats, prowling through the flat, carefully sniffing each corner for a burning smell, but nothing ever came out of that, so I’ve given up the hunt.
I talk a lot during the day. I work at Call Care, a company that takes care of the calls that other companies don’t take care of. A few weeks ago, a law firm got involved in a tax scandal. Their client, a famous English actor, moved to Russia to avoid the highest income bracket. Each of our cubicles was equipped with a big pile of instructions, and I read it first thing in the morning so I could answer every query with confidence. The phone lines were red hot all day. I didn’t even have time to eat my lunch, but I didn’t mind.
The cubicle next to mine is usually occupied by Jess. She is an aspiring stylist who works here to support her career. She’s done some assistant work for fashion magazines, but is primarily known online as Jessie Bubble. Her dad gave her this nickname because she talks so much, but now she’s turned the negative associations around by using it as the name for her blog. We chat when the phones aren’t ringing. They’ve been very quiet these days because our current client is a private GP with only a handful of patients, so Jess tells me about her weekend.
“That was literally one of the best dinners I’ve ever been to. It was in this big house in Chelsea and everything inside, even the toilet roll holder, was gorgeous. And the best part was when I found out the brother of the host is a pop star! Guess who?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re such a spoilsport.”
My phone rings.
“Bedford Square Medical Centre, Zoe speaking.”
“I need to see the doctor,” says the male voice.
“What do you need the doctor for?”
“I have a headache.”
“I’m afraid the doctor is fully booked. The next available date would be next Tuesday.”
“It’s very urgent. You have to help me. ”
There is no script on my desk, as the doctor hasn’t given us anything except his schedule.
I improvise: “Do you eat enough vegetables?”
“I like broccoli.”
“That’s good. I like broccoli too.” I prefer spinach and I hate cauliflower, but I’m trying to be helpful.
“If I was a vegetable, I would be broccoli,” he says.
“I would prefer to be a fruit. Like watermelon,” I say.
The lines are quiet, so I’m doing my food shopping online while browsing for a new type of washing powder. I like to buy things online because I like the feeling of not having enough time to do it in real life. I also like seeing Teri’s jealous face every time I receive a package. She never gets deliveries. Sometimes I worry that she might steal my boxes from our shared hallway, but luckily that hasn’t happened yet.
Jess uploaded photos of her new outfits in the morning, and is now systematically refreshing the page, waiting for comments to come in. We sit here all day, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Jess doesn’t always talk, and our silences make me realise that she sees me as a real friend.
I read somewhere that having a routine is an important part of the nesting process into a flat. I always cook for myself, even after busy days, because self-nurture equals self-value. When cooking, I turn on the TV to watch Celebrity News because you become friends with people you follow so closely, and I want to know what’s going on in their lives. I usually make a stew in the big cast iron pan I bought in case I have a lot of people over, and I stand there watching and stirring. After that, I start my bath in a bathtub that is too small to take a real bath in, but it’s the idea that comforts me.
The night is the hardest part to get through. Somewhere on my way from the bathroom to the bedroom is where fear catches me. The trick I devised for getting through the night is to leave the living room lights on and to tell myself that I have nothing to live for, so that when someone breaks in and kills me, it won’t be a big deal. And if I get through the night and manage to stay alive by virtue of my own worthlessness, all I need to do is to open my eyes and find a reason to get out of bed and go on living.
He calls again the next day. He is connected to Jess at first, but he says he wants to speak to Zoe because I’m the one who knows his symptoms best.
I pick up the phone and he says: “I still have a terrible headache. Tuesday’s fine.”
“I’m sorry but that Tuesday slot has been taken. I can schedule you for Wednesday.”
“I don’t know whether I have enough broccoli to sustain me until Wednesday,” he says.
“I order my food online. Maybe you can do that too.”
“That was a joke.”
“Oh, ha ha.”
He calls again around noon. He tells me about his condition, which started after he was made redundant. He tells me he used to be in a very demanding job, but we all know about the state of the economy. He tells me he now takes a lot of walks and tries to catch up on the the books he’s been meaning to read. He tells me the thing he misses the most is his work email, because people don’t respect him anymore with a gmail-address.
I tell him I became scared of someone breaking in after my dog was taken away. I tell him I love to wear grey, because that’s black without the cliche. I tell him that Call Care is my first real job, and the flat I live in is my first real flat too. I tell him my parents think I work for a law firm, and I get away with it by telling them about the calls I take for my law firm clients.
We talk for so long that I don’t even have time to do my groceries online. I come home and there is nothing to eat, so I heat up porridge and make myself breakfast for dinner. I switch on the TV to Celebrity News and they tell me that Rihanna is getting back with Chris Brown. Also, this actor Randall Reno, who had an affair with an actress 20 years his junior, has now received the divorce papers from his wife. I see him making a press statement, saying that he’s utterly distraught by the pain he has caused his family. His voice sounds so familiar, the monotonous low murmur that accentuates a vulnerable tenderness, and I know it’s him.
Everything I do after that feels a bit different. The realisation that he is out there suddenly makes the world very small and orderly. I know he is there and I am here and everything in between doesn’t matter. I go to bed watching one of his early films, ‘Hipsters and Peanuts’, and sleep like a baby.
Jess is the first one to notice. She asks me whether I’m wearing a new dress and I say it’s just a really, really old one. When he calls, I candidly mention the affair.
“You must feel very lost right now. I know how it feels when the world you’ve known so well is taken away from you,” I say.
“I’m dealing with it. The only thing I can do is to try to keep myself busy and not think about the past,” he says.
“You’re human too. Other people don’t understand that you make mistakes, just like them,” I say.
“I’m too human, that’s my problem.”
I move the microphone closer to my mouth and press the headset tighter against my ear, but it slips because my hands are so sweaty.
“I get it,” I say.
The next morning, Jess says: “You look fresh today.”
“Really?” I ask. I do sleep a lot better since I’m watching Reno’s old films at night.
“Except for that dress. You realise this is the fifth day in a row you’re wearing it?”
Jess wants to take me shopping, so she shows me her bookmarks folder with online shops that sell big names for small prices.
“Only you can get away with wearing that stuff,” I say.
“Zoe, anything can look good if you wear it the right way.”
She opens one of the 20 tabs and starts scrolling down an endless supply of clothes. I see her sitting in front of the screen, her eyes going up and down as if watching vertical ping pong. Her hair is tied up into a high ponytail on one side and her mouth, lipsticked fluorescent pink today, is half open. She looks like a bunny missing one ear.
Once I see that mutant bunny sitting there, I feel the urge to tell her everything. But what about Reno’s feelings? He has chosen me to share his secrets with, and he must feel that speaking on the phone guarantees him some kind of anonymity.
“What would you do if you feel a connection to someone, but can’t get to that person?” I ask her.
“Poor Zoe. I think you should be honest with him, about want you want, you know.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Then move closer and find out.”
It’s the day before his appointment, so now is the time to take Jess’ advice seriously. I feel nervous but at least I’ve memorised what to say. I wanted to write it down on a piece of paper but I would die if Jess finds it. I try to chat with Jess for distraction, who tells me a friend has invited her to go to this exclusive members club. I smirk not because I’m excited for her but because I know the biggest VIP is in my hands. I’m still smirking when he calls. We talk about the weather first and what we had for dinner, but I’m too nervous for chit-chat.
“What will happen after tomorrow?” I ask.
“Your appointment with the doctor. What happens to me after you’ve seen the doctor?”
“I don’t think the doctor will do anything to you.”
I hear the sound of my own laughter.
“I’m a professional and I have my clients’ best interest at heart. And it is precisely because I’m a professional, that I’m asking for your number, so I can call you outside office hours. I want to be able to answer all your questions, not only the ones about your headache.”
Of all the times I’ve said this out loud to myself, this was definitely the best one. I wrap my feet around the leg of my swivel chair and imagine creating a bubble in which everything stops except for me. I would break into Call Care’s system and trace his phone number. If I would be more ambitious, I would find the address that matches that number so I could go see him straight away.
“I don’t disagree,” he says.
“Just give me your number.”
I come home and I see Teri staring out of her window. I say hi to her for the first time since my dog left. She stares at me for a while, and asks: “How are you Zoe?” I say it’s been too long and we should catch up when I hear my fire alarm ringing. It never goes off in the evenings but I’m happy I’m saved by the bell. Inside, I turn the alarm off, get my big pan out and prepare my stew. While it’s cooking, I get the phone and enter the number he gave me. I stir in my stew with one hand while holding the phone in the other hand. I hear a familiar voice answering, saying “You’ve reached the voicemail of the Bedford Square Medical Centre.” I remember doing this, on the day we got the GP as a client, because Jess was too hung over.
For a second I consider running out of the front door and yelling to Teri whether she wants to have some stew, but then I remember telling myself I have nothing to live for so it’s no big deal, and I stir in my stew while I hear the soft dial tone chattering in the background.
Mary is a Chinese-Dutch journalist based in London. Both her fiction and non-fiction focus around contemporary Chinese society, but she prefers English cake when she's off duty.