Shiny Happy People
The ribbon at the bottom of the TV screen was red, white text zipping across it at speed. The volume might have been on, or it might have been muted, but Hazel couldn’t tell right now. She couldn’t hear or speak, and although she still had vision, nothing was registering in front of her eyes. There was some kind of commotion on the screen; shades and smudges of grey were scattered and dispersed by orange and red and white light. The sound, if there had been any, would have been booming and crashing but that was all drowned out by the static in Hazel’s head. The static had been caused by a typical evening at home, that had been typically fractious and angry, with tears and insults and raised voices distributed generously on both sides. But this was different; it never ended like this.
“What do you mean this is over?”
The crazy golf club that was normally so hard to get in to, packed out with hip 20- and 30-somethings drinking cocktails and shrieking over the novelty game, was strangely quiet. Probably because it was a bit early, but then again, if Hazel and Richard’s offices had closed early that day, then you’d have thought that the others in the usually bustling financial district would have done the same. This was the problem that the conversation centred on. Over, and over, circling around, and never really providing an adequate solution. The main thing was, there was no one there, and the happy hour cocktails were a little flat, but Hazel and Richard were there, and booze was cheap, and they had a lot to ignore which was a task the could attack with great enthusiasm.
Hazel was shakily nudging a golf ball between a T-Rex’s feet, regretting the third mojito, when Richard came back from the bathroom.
“They had the news on the TV in the corridor through there” he gestured vaguely with a hand, “there’s some serious shit happening up North. Army reserves being called out, and riots and that”
He sounded disinterested, and his tone caught Hazel.
“Huh…I’m sure it’ll sort itself out”
“We should see if Matty and Rach are ok. I think they’re round where it’s all kicking off”
At the mention of their friends, Hazel felt a prickly heat wash over her cheeks and palms. Matty and Rach. And their 2 year old Lenny. Abandoning them for a smaller city, a quieter life, and the aching superiority of settling down, being adult, and successful at it. She swung viciously at the ball, hit it, and dropped the club in one movement, that would’ve been graceful but for the influence of the rum. Then she kissed Richard, pressing her hips against him, hard. He wasn’t expecting it, and several cocktails down, stumbled a little. It wasn’t a pleasant kiss. It was a warning, but he still kissed her back, partly out of habit, and partly because that was the deal. They stopped, and Hazel rocked back on her heels, flushed. There was a pause that would have been uncomfortably long for any onlooker, but was absorbed by the alcohol for the two of them.
“We’re so much cooler than those guys. Always were. Who want’s that box-set, scheduled sex, 2.5 kids life anyway?” Richard’s statement hung in the stale, beery air.
“Yeah” said Hazel.
The offices had emptied by the middle of the week, leaving a dense heat to the air of the city centre. Concrete and pollution and dust, without the foot traffic of workers to shuffle it along. Hazel stayed at work until the office closed. She had ignored the initial write-round emails to all staff suggesting that they might want to stay at home and spend time with their families, as well as the fifth and sixth all-staff announcements stating that it was safest to work from home, that annual leave was not being used for this time, that pay would remain as normal. She had even ignored the final email, stating that the office would be closed, and work suspended from close-of business Wednesday, until she had received a call from her manager (a blocked number, not his usual extension from 2 floors up), sounding far away, and jet-lagged. The office would be closed, stay at home, go on fucking holiday for a while, if things at home were that bad. Hazel only half listened, yeah, ok, yeah, sure, maybe I need a break anyway, and put the phone down. The office TVs were showing non-stop newsreel, full of greys punctuated with flashes of colour. Locations were familiar rather than foreign. All this bullshit was right at their fucking door, and forcing her to go home and stay with fucking Richard, Jesus Christ what had she done to deserve this?
Richard’s students didn’t call him Professor Todd, and a small part of him wished that they would, but felt too awkward to say so. This was the modern day, and there were no barriers between academics and students anymore, no matter how hard he wished there were. When the students had stopped turning up for class, he had checked names off the list, and reported it, only to receive a garbled email from the Dean that international students were being given leave to return home given the current circumstances, and that no visa restrictions would be enforced. Classes took no less than a week to become quiet and subdued to the point of discomfort, and eventually Richard had taken to cancelling classes, and mailing round reading lists and discussion questions to cover if students wished. Now there was a stoic silence across the college, email lay dormant, and no one seemed to give a shit about finals, including the Dean. Well fuck them. If they were going to let this lousy state of emergency bullshit get in the way of education, they deserved their low grades. What happened to Blitz spirit? What about the Miners strikes and brown-outs? Didn’t people just get on with it then? Didn’t they understand that not everyone could just pack up and sit at home, holding their families, and taking comfort in their loved ones during times like these?
“All the fucking supermarkets are closed”
“Even that massive 24 hour monster in Leytonstone?”
“I don’t care how desperate I am, we’re not going to fucking Leytonstone for a fucking food shop”
“Well have you checked?”
“Why do you have to argue with everything I fucking say? Yes, I’ve checked, Christ, you really do think I’m an idiot, don’t you?”
“We’re going round in fucking circles, we haven’t got any food, there must be somewhere open.”
“The websites all say that it’s pending the lifting of curfews and the state of emergency”
“Since when was there a fucking curfew? And surely state of emergency doesn’t affect us here when all the action’s happening out in bloody Essex?”
Richard made a noise that was midway between a groan, and a death rattle. The argument had been going on for 45 minutes. 49 if you included the time it had taken for the internet to consider whether or not it was going to work today, so they could look things up. They were no closer to establishing where they could go and get some food, and both were tetchy to the point of snarling at each other. However, even through the mists of low blood sugar, they couldn’t deny the fact that the shops were closed. No matter how you searched, all the supermarkets had been shut for at least 24 hours, and were showing little sign of re-opening any time soon.
“Lets just go out and have a wander around”
“What the fuck good is that going to do? You’re doing my fucking head in, we’re getting nowhere-”
“We’ll see what’s open. The little shitty corner shop places might still be open. They’ll have canned soup and stuff we can stock up on”
“In our little nuclear bunker? Hole up and get cosy and wait out the end of fucking days?”
Richard raised an eyebrow at Hazel’s infuriating sarcasm. Hazel ran out of steam. She was hungry, and couldn’t deal with this right now, and even traipsing round the empty streets in the early June heat was better than feeling like Rich was laughing at her.
“We can’t keep living like this”
It was statements like that that got Hazel in the space between her lungs and her spine, and it wasn’t until later that she would realise that she had been screaming with all her might, obscenities and curses, threats and pleas, with no mind to who saw or heard, or even to the effect it had on Richard, the man that she claimed (and would defend to the very end) that she loved, and it was only the gnawing of 2 missed meals at her gut that stopped her from emptying her heart of vitriol all over Rich.
“There’s nothing to be done. We’ll just have to starve.” and with those words, she stepped towards the door, throwing her weight in to showing him her back. That would have to do. She didn’t have the energy to argue any more, and her fury would dissipate with a slammed door and a few sniffled tears in the bathroom. Rich was less easily swayed. He stormed past her, out of the flat, door shut behind before Hazel could wail at him not to go, not to walk away from her like she had just done to him. She sat in numbed silence in the bedroom, knees to her chest, listening to the quiet, and her own breathing.
It was over an hour before he came back. She could have watched for him from the balcony; on a day as quiet as this, spotting him, even from the 21st floor would have been easy, but she had sat in cold discipline, pretending that nothing had happened. This hadn’t been the first time, after all, and would not be the last, if something didn’t change soon. Maybe he was right, she found herself thinking, wondering, for a moment, what would happen if he never came back, or if she made herself scarce before he did. She knew that she wouldn’t, but sometimes it gave her strength to explore the possibility in her own head. If she could cope with the “What if”s in there, she could surely face them head on in reality, although she knew really that she would never let it come to that. In her head, or in reality, she would dig in her heels, and drag them both through hell before allowing him to leave, or walking out on this herself, no matter how unhappy they both were, and even when she picked at it, she didn’t know why. Even teenagers were more dignified in their affairs than this; she certainly had been, had considered herself calm and balanced, logical and rational, loving enough to let someone go, before she had met Rich. What, and where, and how this had changed she could not have told you.
Hazel had’t realised Rich’d had time to grab his keys until he was back in, door closed softly behind him, and a very specific smell following him in. She had defused her own rage some time ago, and was now merely tired, acerbic and terse. Rich had been prepared for a fight, prepared to throw his bags across the room, rage and shout, and ultimately walk out for good this time, but the way she looked at him when he came in bearing gifts told him that this would be unnecessary.
“Well there was one place still open. It won’t last, but it’ll help for now”
Hazel could not help but grin. There were many moments of rustling paper backs, distinct red and yellow logos and the adrenaline shot of salt, grease, overwrought flavours, high-lighted by the slight groans that people make when eating something incredible.
“Urgh, it’s just junk”
“It’s fine. The world will end before we have time to get fat. We’re fine”
The heatwave continued through the night and heaved itself in to Saturday morning. They had fucked in the seething dark that night with all the windows open, and Hazel had felt so full of satisfaction (not pleasure, or happiness, or contentment, or hope) on that Saturday morning that she had forced herself out of bed to run. The glee she felt as the sun shone on her skin, and the muck of the city and the country’s conflict advanced on their pit of civilisation in the south and settled itself in her pores outshone any fucking, no matter how well she and Rich were getting on. She loved the feel of her heart burning in her chest, and the depth and vigour of the phlegm she coughed up after each run gave her a sense of having been cleansed.
She burst in through the flat’s door.
“Lets go to Margate!”
Richard raised an eyebrow and curled his lip at the same time, transforming his face in to one of comical villainy.
“Are you high?”
“Only on endorphins!” She squealed,
But 45 minutes later they were in the car. They had been “borrowing” her parents’ car for a year and a half now. That was what they called it, in order to avoid the embarrassment of having to discuss her father’s too-many near-misses, and her mother’s creeping dementia, that no one in the family was permitted to acknowledge. The car saved her from having to face any kind of reality. It saved her from having to be in the house with Richard. Even if they went somewhere together, being at home was the worst part. It laid waste to all plans and aspirations, and found every gap in the knit of their relationship that was so perfectly unravelling. Margate was the answer today. On other days it had been Camber, or Dungeness, or Brighton. For whole weeks it had been Portmeirion, Merseyside, the Cotswolds. A year and a half of distraction, and a careful game of smoke and mirrors regarding a relationship that would shortly be hitting the 5 year mark.
Margate was as quietly deserted as London. The art galleries, shops, pubs, cafes closed. They had managed to scrounge petrol and a lunch of packets and neon coloured wrappings from the sparse shelves of an off-brand gas station just outside the town. The sun shone though, and Rich could not help but admire Hazel’s tanned skin, her legs perfectly on show in slightly too-short-shorts. When she chose to be this manic, imaginative, compelling alien creature she could bring the world down, bring humans around her to their knees, and this was what Rich loved her for (or at least, that was what he told himself). It was also this creature, so superior and sharp and full of that terrifying wit that could bring rooms to silence and tears to the eyes of those it was applied to, that made him hate her. But today, there was no point jeopardising his seat in the car for the journey home (he hoped she wouldn’t do something like that in a fit of rage, but could never be quite sure), and she did look quite glorious in the light of a sea-stripped sun.
She was squinting in to the sun above and behind him as he took photos of her on his phone, hamming it up as her own private photographer, a paparazzo worshiping her image. It took him a moment to realise that something in her expression had changed, and that the playfulness was draining from it.
There was an overlong pause, before she lazily gestured towards the sea,
“You can see the fires in Essex…across the way. Where it’s all been happening”
Rich knew there were seconds to remove them from this unfortunate encounter with reality and geopolitics before shiny, glowing Hazel was no longer glowing, but incinerating all around her with fury and pain.
“Lets go to Wonderland!”
He approached the distraction like a musician at a children’s party, over-acted and belligerent.
She was still half squinting, but intrigued now.
“The theme park thing!” He gestured wildly behind Hazel, making himself look foolish and bumbling, a clown to entertain her. He took her hand, and she turned with him, was lead passively down the funny little side street, and in to the old arcade that was the entrance. There were perhaps 4 bored members of staff sat behind plexiglas screens selling tokens for rides. No one else was there.
The rest of the weekend had been sullen, grey and heavy on the lungs as more heat and dust swept over the city. Hazel had enough respect for Richard’s attempts at trying in Margate to try her hardest too, and it was only when they had reached the flat again, after a sweaty ride home, and a depressing wander round a freakishly upbeat and soulless theme park that she had finally given up on giving a shit about Rich any more, and become prickly and withdrawn, demanding his attention, and stalking around the flat trying to taunt and avoid him by turn.
They slept late on Monday, far too late, and woke when the time was in double figures feeling drowsy and disoriented and vaguely queasy at the prospect of so much time having been lost to them. Not that they had to go to work, or had any more projects left to do to distract themselves from each other. At the beginning of the year there had been plans and ideas, a creative drive from both of them to be better, and push push push to get themselves out of a rut. But it wasn’t really a rut, it was a prison that they had constructed for themselves, out of themselves, and there is only so long you can fight yourself for.
Too few hours had passed before it was 3pm, and Hazel was itching to get out of the flat, pacing rooms like a big cat in a zoo. It had been a quiet enough day, with both of them engaging in silent truce born of fatigue. It was then that Rich remembered the wine. It was the same age as him, had been sent by his parents as a birthday present a month or so before, when packages coming from France were still arriving undisturbed by submarines and postal security checks. He had allowed his birthday to go past with a fizzle rather than a bang, hadn’t seen his parents since Christmas, and got a headache when he drank reds anyway, so the wine had been acknowledged by email, then taken up residence in the cupboard under the sink, while the box that the 12 half-bottles had come in was repurposed as a record stand for “Spins of the Week”.
Hazel jumped when he came in to the bedroom brandishing 4 bottles. She had been mindlessly scrolling through photos of men on a dating app that she and Rich both pretended she didn’t still have on her phone. She never did more than flirt. It was entertainment. Rich understood. It was the same reason why they never spoke about the naked photos of several of his female friends on his phone.
“Please tell me you’re bringing me booze ‘cos the war’s over?”
“Say it anyway, so I can feel good for a second”
“The war’s over, lets go and get drunk in the park”
They had stopped paying attention to the news, skipped channels on the television that showed it so fast that the button on the remote was getting stuck in it’s chubby plastic collar. It didn’t matter anymore. The advancing heat and dust told them enough. Once or twice the night air had carried booming, crashing noises. They still kept the windows open, and the dust and sweat settled in to their pores.
There was a perfect tree in the park, and Rich lay propped up against it, legs akimbo, with Hazel between them, and the wine bottles and pack of crisps between her legs, a hip parody of antenatal class poses. They had taken 8 of the 12 bottles with them, and 3 still had wine in them. The heat remained, and the two of them sweated, dry lips and thick tongues ignored in favour of the sticky, furred feeling of their innards as they soaked up the sun and the wine.
Hazel felt happy. Why, she couldn’t be sure. The quiet and the slight discomfort of the heat, the wine, the sweat trapped between hers and Richards bodies, were all unpleasant, but she desperately did not want to have to move. This was the best of them, with all outside influence stripped away, honest to a fault, managed in to their warmest, most charming sweet selves by the alcohol. Rich was happy too. He knew it was only a matter of time before he fucked up, and set Hazel off, or before she got in a mood, and he responded only selfishly to her pain, but right now, here was a form of happy.
They had walked home after dark. There were no wardens to lock the park gates anymore, and Rich and Hazel were still drunk, half stumbling, hand in hand, half bickering, half building each other up, waiting for the magic to lift, and for them to begin hating each other again. It was only a matter of time.
The drones came in the night, and there were bright lights, and noise, and pain so distinct and sudden that it could not even be acknowledged before there was nothing left to feel anyway. Rich and Hazel had gone to bed happy, curled around each other, pressed in to the human curves of each others bodies, but it was only a matter of time.