by Angela Readman
The smog had a weird smell like fast food and new electrical products. Something was going round. Everyone wore masks over their mouths. They stayed home for a while, then ran out of vitamins and went back to work.
The doctor spoke like I was missing something, broke the news into bits like Lego.
‘Lonely,’ he said, ‘No doubt.’
He was sorry; there was no cure. He gave me a pamphlet and flyer for a support group starting that night. I sat in an orange chair in a church hall and waited. No one showed. I suppose no one wanted to expose themselves to a new strain.
My wife was rearranging furniture at home. I started a curry to fill the house with searing smells so no one could see my tainted air. My son played a videogame. My wife wafted air freshener, considering new curtains.
‘I want something that makes a statement,’ she said.
‘What sort of statement?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure.’
I tried to kiss her; she turned her cheek so it would be quicker – tie-backs on the brain. She could smell it, I knew. In bed, we left a space between us big enough to give loneliness a wide berth.
I took the pamphlet into the toilet at work. Lonely could infect someone you know.
How to Spot the Modern Lonely. The symptoms were confusing. One was people glued to their phone. Another was going anywhere without one. Tappety tap, all day. I heard typing. The sound of the modern lonely varied. It wasn’t just strangers asking ‘is this seat is taken?’, it was a text beep. And silence. At the vending machine I saw blue plumes, people told jokes and a stench hazed the room. Everyone could see lonely in the air, but no one mentioned it, ashamed.
My boss dragged me into his office, gulped from a mug with kittens on and explained it wasn’t company policy to discriminate against the lonely, on the contrary, some of its sufferers were his best employees – but he must consider his staff. I moved my stress-ball and Las Vegas mug to a cubicle and thought about the word ‘cubicle’- a cross between ice-cube and icicle. On ice, in my cube I couldn’t contaminate anyone. After work I drove to my parents and sat in the car; I didn’t go in. They didn’t need to catch this at their age. No one knew when there would be a jab.
I got in the habit of walking home, so it was dark when I got there, a house full of steam. The ache in my chest and hands got so bad I walked through the worst part of town, not bad because of crime, but because the lonely was palpable. Clouds hung over semi detached houses, gardens full of water features and gnomes, a stench of foody plastic mingled with begonias and fertilizer. In the coffee place, I saw her again.
She wore a tight apron with a white plastic tag. The letters of her name had rubbed away. She smelt of bagels, but stronger, a sad scent came off her in waves, a halo of fog round bleached hair. She filled my cup, about to walk away with that wiggle that was lonely’s disguise.
‘I couldn’t help noticing..,’ I said, ‘Are you?’
She cracked her gum. The place was empty, the sag her last customer left de-compressed on the sofa . Something about her reminded me of new years, people not kissing who they were with, but texting people not in the room.
‘So? You’re one to talk,’ she said.
She looked like she might pick a fight, the best way to stop her hands aching she could find. I suspected it was a method she’d used many times.
She locked up and we walked to hers, a flat above a DVD rental place. The sign was neon. The shop was a box of smoke, hazed by customers staring at Ben & Jerry’s and Seth Rogan films.
‘This is what you want?’ she said upstairs.
I nodded, couldn’t talk.
We took off our clothes. Folding carefully, we cast the odd glance across the dim room to check if either of us had noticed the lonely on the other’s skin, if it was worse than our own.
‘It’s no cure you know,’ she said, sitting on the bed in her underwear.
A beige bra was splashed with a coffee stain over her heart.
‘I know,’ I said.
We lay on the bed and pressed our bellies against each other, our itching chests, aching hands. We lay like that, silent for a very long time, neither of us curing the other of anything, each other’s Band Aid – for a while.
Angela Readman is half woman, half lap top; she writes little stories she hopes people may enjoy someday.