It was 3am on New Year’s Day, and Mia was starving.
She’d been at a party where all the food had been ironic, or otherwise making a point. It was a themed party, and the theme was Stuff That Should Stay In 2018. Everyone came dressed in the year’s most regrettable fashions (comically thick eyebrows peeping over the top of comically tiny sunglasses; bumbags worn around the ribs; trainers with the look, feel and arch support of socks), and bearing plates and bowls (so many bowls) of the year’s most regrettable food trends (keto anything, mushroom tea, sheet-pan anything, unicorn anything, bowls). It was funny, but it didn’t exactly fill you up.
Mia had gone to the party in the necklace — the one he’d given her — because:
“It’s a symbol of what I want to leave behind in the old year. He’s bad for me. My New Year’s Resolution is to give him up,” she said, to the growing handful of friends who Knew About Him. They had cornered her, by the window where she was watching the premature fireworks pop and spurt outside, clutching their glasses of Prosecco like broomsticks, their questions framed as if they were concerned for her health, instead of dying for something to talk about. “What is going on with you?” they said, and tutted and frowned and loved every detail.
The truth was, she’d tried to take the necklace off before she left the flat. But somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to part with it. It was a sign of just how difficult her New Year’s resolution would be to keep.
It wasn’t as though Mia didn’t love him. Well, she wasn’t sure if she actually loved him; since she’d reached her late twenties she’d realized she was less sure about these things than she’d been at twenty-one. But she thought about him all the time — the sweet, low rumble of his voice; the feeling of his hands on her face, her waist. She’d made him dinner one night at her flat and he’d stood in her kitchen, drinking wine and watching her chop and stir, and suddenly crossed the tiny room in one step just to put his hands on her shoulders, gently kiss her neck as she stood there, breathing in the smell of his shampoo mingled with the basil leaves she was tearing from the bunch in her hand. The way he made love to her. The way he looked at her.
He’d told her it was over with his wife. Not at first. Mia wasn’t blameless. But after she tried to break it off the first time, that was what he’d told her. They were separated — it was over. They were still both in the same house, but separate rooms, just for now, it was definitely over. His wife didn’t seem to have accepted it, but it was over. “No, really,” Mia had told her friends, “it is over. It’s just more complicated than it seems.”
It was never complicated, and it was never over. At least, it hadn’t been then. But on Christmas Eve, his wife had found out.
Harry had come to Mia’s flat — of course he had — after his wife threw him out on Christmas Eve. In the morning, when Mia explained that she had her own family to see — presents to give and receive; nieces and nephews to delight in; questions, about whether she had a boyfriend at the moment, to deflect — he seemed so hurt and bemused and alone that she’d cancelled her afternoon’s plans, to be with him.
While Mia dressed in her most tasteful Christmas jumper and skinny jeans, Harry had curled up on her bed with the quilt around his shoulders and called around until he found a restaurant with a cancellation for Christmas dinner. It was a once in a lifetime sort of place — Mia had never been, but she’d read a lot about it. “Unfussy, quietly show-stopping twists on traditional favorites,” the reviewers said. “I’m still dreaming about the roast potatoes with hazelnuts a week later.”
The roast potatoes with hazelnuts were on the restaurant’s ‘festive menu’, and the thought of them was one of the things that kept Mia going that Christmas morning. She took off her coat in her mum’s front room and nervously explained to her family that she’d be leaving again in an hour, to spend the rest of Christmas Day with a man she’d never mentioned. Throughout the decidedly unfestive conversation that followed, she tried to focus on the dinner that awaited her. In a warm, food-smelling room, with Yuletide music playing and bright golden light reflecting off every glass and fork and Christmas tree bauble, she would enjoy every crispy, fluffy, delicious mouthful, and occasionally pause to look into the adoring eyes of the man she probably did actually love, and somehow the two of them would make everything work.
By the time she got home, he’d gone back to his wife.
He’d come back to Mia’s flat again on Boxing Day — of course he had — but she hadn’t answered the door. She’d spent the rest of the week in bed, wearing the necklace he’d given her, under the quilt that still smelt of his aftershave, living on Baileys and discount Celebrations from the corner shop, and ignoring his calls.
This evening’s party had been the first time she’d ventured outside; and she’d been surprised to find herself enjoying it. There was something restorative about taking the time to get properly ready: a red dress, glittery eyeshadow, a Hollywood-style spritz of perfume.
And about the night air as she walked to the party from the Tube; and that strange, wonderful New Year’s Eve bonhomie of strangers; and watching from the balcony of the party flat as in every direction, other people’s fireworks spread feather-like over the sky like ice on a window. And the fuss that her friends made, irritating though they were, reminded her that she’d been neglecting everyone in her life but Harry. She’d been a supporting character in Harry’s marriage for too long; it felt good to remember that she was a person, actually, with a life of her own.
By a quarter to three, the sense of serenity engendered by this revelation was starting to wear off (along with the booze, and the sugar from the vegan buttercream she’d scooped off the top of a unicorn cupcake), so she said goodbye to the few people still awake, and left what remained of the party. As her Uber sped through the city strewn with zombified drunks she peered hungrily out at the street-lit blur, looking for somewhere that might sell her the first meal of the year: maybe a kebab, or a falafel wrap, or -
“Wait, stop,” she said to the driver. She stumbled out the back door of the car and into the bright, redeeming light of the golden arches.
Inside was as warm as June, that bloody Christmas song still playing, but the place was almost deserted: one other customer, wearing a coat over pajamas and slumped alone over her tray; one unhappy-looking teenager behind the till. Mia was gliding to the counter as if ascending to heaven — drawn by the frying smell like a cartoon character by the steam from a cooling pie — when the only other customer raised her tear-stained face from her food, and Mia realized who she was.
Karen couldn’t imagine forgiving Harry, but she couldn’t imagine going on with her life without forgiving him. Each seemed as difficult as the other. For now, she’d thrown him out indefinitely — sent him to his parents in Scotland to think about what he’d done.
The children were confused, but what could she tell them? Her oldest, Robbie, was only eleven — old enough to understand, but too young for her to want him to. She’d given them vague reassurances, let all three kids stay up with her to see in the new year. They’d all had mugs of tea, and chips out of the paper — the kids had, at least; Karen had no appetite and had been subsisting on Celebrations and Baileys since Christmas Eve — and then all three of them had fallen asleep in her bed, as though it were a sleepover or a storm. She’d been glad of the company; the warmth and snuffle of her children’s bodies, in a bed that had been so cold and empty for the last week.
But Daisy snored, and Teddy wriggled, and Robbie was already starting to smell like adolescent boys smell, and Karen couldn’t sleep. At a quarter to three, she extracted herself from the nest of blankets and children, left a note downstairs in case Robbie woke up, and slipped out of the house.
In the near-silent, near-dark of the city, broken up by pools of municipal LED light and the occasional nearby shriek of a fox or a drunk, Karen thought she would finally be able to cry. She’d held it in all Christmas. She’d wept quietly, drowned out by music, in another room so the children couldn’t see, and promised herself that soon she would find some time to be alone and have the messy, indulgent, out-loud howling cry she deserved. But now — surely the most alone she had been for a long time, with no-one to see her — her eyes were dry; the sob remained lodged behind her ribs.
She stomped the streets, pajama bottoms tucked into Robbie’s trainers, paying no real attention to the direction she took: one black, empty street looked much like the next, everyone asleep, everything closed up. So it was almost a shock when she turned a corner and found herself bathed in neon light, tinny Christmas music just audible from inside the big glass fast-food bauble across the road. How ridiculous. Who on earth wanted a burger at 3am on New Year’s Day?
With a sudden pang, she realized that she did.
She crept into the empty restaurant with halting steps, wrapping her coat around herself. She felt an absurd but compelling urge to explain herself to the teenager at the till — “Please don’t mistake me for the kind of person who eats fast food alone at 3am on New Year’s Day; my husband had an affair, you see” — but when she was asked for her order she gave it without a second’s hesitation. She wanted the Classic burger. She also wanted large fries, and a large chocolate milkshake, and an apple pie.
She sat down in a booth and fell upon her food. It was warm and sweet and familiar; each bite so predictable and comforting and easy; and she was so tired and hungry that she unexpectedly began to cry. She cried over the food, around the food, onto the food. Tears soaked the bun of her burger as she chewed it, and added extra salt to her fries; she wailed out loud and drowned the wail with milkshake and then wailed some more; she ate and sobbed and ate and sobbed, and she could sense the growing horror of the teenager behind the till, but she didn’t care.
Eventually the sob sobbed itself out, and she went on with her meal in peace. She was feeling in her pockets for some extra money to give the teenager at the till — something to say “sorry that you’re being paid the teenage minimum wage to listen to middle-aged women cry about their husband’s affairs, what a way to start the year” — when she heard the door open. Karen looked up, and her husband’s affair was standing in front of her.
For a moment they seemed to make eye contact; but then Mia moved on towards the counter, past Karen, looking not at Karen but over her head, at the menu. She was off her face, probably; or did her eyes always look like that, just a little too wide?
Harry had said that Mia was mad; that she was obsessed with him, invented a fantasy relationship between them, had thrown herself at him again and again until he’d relented in a moment of weakness. Karen had waved away his excuses at the time. But now that Karen was exhausted and cried-out; now that she was looking at this girl — party-worn and limping, all legs and cleavage in nothing but a barely-there red dress and a necklace, that bloody necklace — she began to find Harry’s story easier to believe.
She could hear Mia’s voice behind her as she ordered, but Karen paid her no attention. She finished her apple pie, licked the syrup from her fingers and began stacking her wrappers on her tray. She was about to stand up when she heard steps behind her, and decided to wait until Mia had gone before she got up. Mia clearly hadn’t noticed Karen, or perhaps hadn’t recognized her, and it was best if it stayed that way — Mia was mad, after all.
But as Mia passed by the table again she put her hand onto Karen’s tray, just for a moment. Karen looked up at Mia as she tottered out into the street; then looked back down at the tray, and the heart-shaped necklace that had been dropped onto it.
Mad. She was completely mad. Definitely.
Karen almost thrust everything on the tray into the flapping bin, but at the last second she changed her mind, clawed back the necklace and took it to the till.
“Please, take this,” she said to the teenager. “Give to your girlfriend, wear it, sell it, I don’t care. Just take it. Please. Happy New Year.”
Karen went home, and Mia went home. Karen climbed back into her bed, where her children rolled over in their sleep to cuddle closer to her; and Mia got between the fresh sheets she’d put on her bed before she went out, and ate her fries in hot, greasy, salty handfuls.
In the morning Mia would sleep. She would roll out of bed in the afternoon to drink Bloody Marys with her friends in the one bar that was open; and very soon she would begin to apply for other jobs.
And Karen would get up early, and eat a big breakfast with the kids. She would begin to explain, to Harry’s parents and her own parents and to herself, that Harry had indeed made a regrettable mistake, by allowing such a mentally unstable young woman to become so obsessed with him; to give in to her in a moment of weakness. It had all been much more complicated than it seemed, but now it was over. He’d been a classic fool.
Grace Fletcher-Hackwood is a copywriter and fiction writer living in Manchester, UK.
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