Jul/Aug 2022  •   Fiction


by Anna Maconochie

Public Domain image

Joe's first thought when he sees Marsha at the party is, "What is this woman doing here?" It's like she's an animal lifted by a storm into an unnatural habitat. She isn't old, but he reckons she has a decade on him and his fellow graduates. This gives her a presence in his eyes. There's no need for his concern, however—she stands firm as a figurehead, and he can hear her American accent clearly across the kitchen as she chats to Lindsey, the host. He notices how she pronounces her words with care and volume; she doesn't murmur or trail off like the others. He doesn't introduce himself that night. He's new to London, and Lindsey is still more or less his only friend here. Joe moved here to pursue a six-month paid internship at a literary agency. Every Londoner he meets brackets his well-priced room with the internship—precious commodities many would covet. It's too soon to know, he feels, how grateful he should be for these things, and he finds this both perplexing and interesting in a way he's not known before. Getting the job, moving cities: it feels like reaching the next level of a videogame he didn't expect to be playing. Adjusting his gratitude or lack of it is another game entirely.

The next time he sees Marsha, at a neighborhood pub, he has no choice but to speak to her. He had agreed to a night out drinking with Lindsey and her friends for the simple fact that she asked him along in a tone not to be refused. Now it's his job to talk to Marsha as, by the time he arrives, there's nowhere else to sit at the table but by her side, and she is currently not in conversation with anyone. As he takes his place on a slightly wobbly stool, she offers her hand to shake.

"Hi, I'm Marsha. You were at Lindsey's party, right?"

"Yeah. I'm Joe. I rent a room in her flat."

Marsha nods slowly as these facts are sought for puzzle pieces. Her nod makes Joe think saying he lives with Lindsey is now like holding a certain card, but he's not sure what use it might have.

"Do you like living with her?" Her tone is serious and perfectly audible to those around them. Why would anyone ask that? he thinks, hoping his face doesn't show the question in his mind.

"Sure. I mean, why wouldn't I? I'm lucky to have the room. First time in London."

Another slow nod from her as she takes it all in. Then silence. Joe wonders what he should ask her in return as now there are too many things swimming in his mind he wants to know.

"How do you know Lindsey?"

"My Dad is British. He's known her Dad forever. She's like family."

"That's nice, to know someone that way."

"Yeah, it's a port in a storm."

There's a storm? Joe thinks but doesn't say. Instead he asks her where she's from in the US.

"I'm Canadian."

Shit. She must get that all the time.

"Oh, that's nice. I mean, Canadians are lovely people, aren't they?"

Why did he have to say that? Your goofy little roommate, she'll say later to Lindsey and Lindsey will bring it up with him at some inopportune moment. Marsha's eyes narrow just a little but there's almost a smile now.

"Hate to burst your bubble but it's not all maple syrup and ice-skating over there." Now she looks disappointed, like she expected more of him. But what? Her skin is pale and enviably smooth, her dyed long hair dead black and her lipstick thick and red as if to say this is not the face of a lovely Canadian. Then her expression is blank again, like a mime between scenes.

"Anyway, Joe, what do you do?"

He tells her about the internship and she listens. He can't tell if she's really interested or good at listening but the thing is, she's so good, he is now aware how most people hardly listen to him at all. He doesn't tell her he's not sure if he wants to be a literary agent. He knows the basics of what they do, but he has no clue as to whether he is a person who can do those things—sell a book to a publisher or advise a writer how to make their book better. It's his first job, apart from working at a pub during university, and he doesn't even know if his uncertainty about such a career path will turn out to be a future problem. He knows he likes fiction and he's read broadly for someone his age, and he conveyed all that calmly in the interview as he never thought he'd even get to be interviewed. Resigned naturalness seems to be what has got him this far. That, and he suspects, having an Indian mother who has passed on enough "diversity" to him. On his first day one of the founder agents, a friendly man with wispy grey hair and a bowling ball gut, asked him if he'd read any Akhil Sharma, and he'd drawn a blank that seemed to embarrass the man more than him. He doesn't tell Marsha this part, either.

Another silence falls between them until a boy, Calum, whom he half-recognizes from the party, sits down opposite them. Calum greets them both and asks Marsha how her singing is going.

"You sing?" Joe asks her.


Joe raises his eyebrows in acknowledgement as if this is the most obvious thing she could be doing. He has never met an opera singer, but there is something about her face with its sharp full curves and painted colors that seems ideal to view from cheap lofty seats or on a large Underground poster. It's easy to imagine this face in the full exertion of song, he thinks. He becomes aware he wants Calum to leave and that isn't happening anytime soon. Still, he feels safer now that the conversation is three-way. Calum, who either knows something about opera or gives a convincing impression he does, is quizzing Marsha about her career back in Canada, and he and Joe learn she was in La Traviata in Toronto. No mean feat, Calum says, like he's some benevolent critic. Marsha smiles politely at him. A professional smile, full of antiseptic, Joe thinks.

Lindsey joins them, seating herself next to Calum, and asks Marsha if she's going to make a trip to Italy while she's here. I'm weighing up my options, Marsha says. The way she describes the potential trip—it's unclear whether it's work-related or something more personal—makes it seem like an emotion-laden decision. Joe decides to leave, in part as he's already overwhelmed by the evening, but also to see what feeling comes over him when he does, like it's there waiting for him. When he says goodbye, Marsha throws a megawatt smile his way, bigger than any he's seen in a long while.

At home he runs a bath, surprised at how tired he feels and how annoyed he is by the evening's events as he perceives them. Then, sinking deeper into the suds, he is annoyed at being annoyed—over what? A brief conversation with relative strangers in a pub? He was barely there an hour. In the days to follow, he notices Lindsey doesn't bring up the subject of Marsha or the night out together, and neither does he.


A month into the internship, it dawns on Joe that all he does—all he will do—is read manuscripts and eavesdrop on phone conversations. The office is open plan, so it's not like he's hearing anything he shouldn't. It's more like being trapped inside a radio. It's difficult to focus on anything, especially reading. Boredom, he learns, can be both interesting and boring, and he thinks about all sorts of things, like he is trapped in a second radio. He hasn't thought about Marsha particularly, but there is something about the black and white interior theme of the office itself reminiscent of her features, the boldness of their color and design. There are one or two dramatic palms in expensive pots large enough to bathe a baby, and he likes watering them. He makes careful notes on the manuscripts he's given in green pen and hands them back to the pool of agents when he's done. He makes tea every few hours and does filing and printing and binding as it arises. These tasks are sweet relief compared to reading manuscripts he's told should never have found their way to the office. He tells the grey-haired agent one day he feels bad for the dozens of authors who won't find representation at Garabette Harris McCoy. Don't, the man, Garabette, says. They're the lucky ones. They got considered.

When he visits his parents back in Norwich, a question always comes up. Where is this going? He blinks each time they say it, wordless. The question is about his job. Neither of them can get their heads round the internship, even though they know it was hard won and money gets dumped in Joe's bank account every month. His father always swore his son wouldn't do his job—driving a lorry—and his mother, who has never worked, says she is proud of him, but her worry sullies the pride. Yet his mother is the one who reads and talks about books, ever since he was born. He wouldn't love books the way he does if it weren't for her. She has always worried about everything, and this internship is no exception. The addiction to worry—he is sure he gets that from her, too. These days she worries a little less, but that's not good, either. If you worry about things, you still care, Joe thinks.

The day after he returns to London, Marsha pops into his head as he walks up Kingsland Road one Saturday, and then, as if his mind controls the world, he actually spots her approaching in animated conversation with a handsome, white-haired man. She's still immaculately made up, but she looks a little older in daylight, and it suits her. The daylight's honesty makes him feel as if she wants to show him her real self, even though running into him is unplanned. She and the man are both wearing dark, elegantly long coats. Her collar is upturned, he has a patterned silk scarf. They make a glamorous pair, Joe thinks. When Marsha sees him, her chatter ceases like a tap turned off, and then she smiles movie star wide like the last time as they all jolt to a stop.


"Hey, Marsha."

"Dad, this is Joe."

Her father seems pleased as they shake hands—familiar, even—and Joe wonders if Marsha has talked about him. Then he quashes that thought. Why would she speak of him to anyone?

"So, we're heading to lunch. Join us!" Marsha speaks as if he has already accepted.

"I'd love to but I—have errands."

She gives him a searching look, then cocks her head like she doesn't buy it. "Can't they wait?"

"My treat," her father says. "We have a table at that new eel pie place."

"I mustn't," Joe says. "I've got to go. Thank you!" And he turns and goes, too fast, but at least it hides the burn in his face and means he doesn't catch her full reaction. He is sure his thank you sounded like he was grateful for being released, not offered lunch. The "errands," a word he never even uses, weren't a lie, but he could have completed them later. Mainly he has to read a manuscript he didn't finish in the office during the week. He is starting to learn through no one telling him that to excel at the internship, or even just to stay on top of it, he needs to take work home. He's not sure if he's investing in his future or simply acting out of a fear he quite literally cannot afford to mess up. It's this or work at the pub back home—if it even has any shifts for him. This is why he couldn't have lunch with Marsha, he thinks. She has her opera career. She is a full person; he is not.

To finish the awful book, he chooses a café and parks himself in it, mentally justifying the expense of coffee as necessary for keeping him in gainful employment. He is still a little breathless from the encounter with Marsha, he needs a space to contain him and what just happened. The caffeine mixes potently with the discomfort of saying no to lunch and a whole roster of other uncomfortable feelings still straining to form, one of which is simple hunger as he hadn't eaten when he left home. For a couple of hours, he is not really in his body. He feels bad, somehow, as if declining the lunch was morally reprehensible. He keeps mentally putting himself on the stretch of street where he ran into her.

By evening, he's calmer. On entering the flat, he hears Marsha's voice, laughing with Lindsey in the kitchen. He heads straight to his room, but Lindsey soon knocks and asks if he wants to join them for a beer. I'll oblige, he says. When he gets to the kitchen, Marsha isn't there.

"Been out and about today?" Lindsey asks him.

"Yeah, wanted to get out of your hair."

"Come on, it's not like that. You come and go as you please. You're paying rent after all."

He hears a toilet flush and footsteps he knows must be Marsha's. Suddenly she is before him, all teeth and lipstick and big hair again. She's wearing a long tight black dress that he couldn't see earlier under her coat which creates just one visible inch of pale cleavage, like someone took a pen and drew a perfect black line. Looking at her obscenely feminine body is as painful as squinting at a bright light.

"Well, Joe, imagine running into you twice in one day!"

Joe forces himself to look at her. "Well, I do live here."

She has her arm round Lindsey, and he notices her hand is toying with the flesh on Lindsey's upper arm as if she is bored, but her expression is anything but bored. He wonders if anything else exists between them other than friendship. He's known Lindsey since he studied English Literature with her at UEA back in Norwich, and he's known her various girlfriends and boyfriends, but she never mentioned Marsha. Why? He can't ask Lindsey—he knows he'll get an ambiguous answer designed to encourage more questions. Right now, sipping from their bottles together, they look the same age, as if Marsha was at UEA with him and Lindsey all along.

"So," Marsha turns to Lindsey and then cocks an eyebrow at Joe, "I asked this one to lunch today and, right in front of my Dad, he turned me down." She folds her arms under her chest, making the black line jump up an extra inch. He wonders if she is drunk from lunch.

Lindsey, it seems, doesn't know how to compute this and gives him a complicated look, not without some awe.

"I'm truly sorry, Marsha, but I had work to do. Please thank your Dad for the offer."

"Work as well as errands?"

"After the errands."

"The internship is on weekends, too?"

"No, it's just all the bloody reading. It mounts up."

"Is there someone you're trying to impress at work?"

"Just my bosses."

"I see. Got the hots for any of them?"

Joe rears his head back as if her words are a physical weight being volleyed at him. Lindsey gives Marsha a playful little kick.

"No! I mean—I haven't thought about it."

"I don't believe for a second you haven't thought about it. I believe you haven't done anything about it. But not the thinking part."

Lindsey is laughing by this point, a pained, heaving laughter. "Stop picking on him, Marsh," she says. "He's one of the good guys. Which café did you go to for your reading?" She seems desperate to switch up the conversation but is still laughing, like he and Marsha are the funniest pair she's ever known.

"The new one. With all the hanging plants."

"I know it," says Marsha. "It's really near where I'm staying. Looks awesome."

It's just a café, he wants to say. Nothing "awesome" about it.

"I have to go," Joe says. He places his half-drunk bottle on the kitchen counter.

"Where? To the nightclub that is your room?" Lindsey shouts after him.

"Just walk away!" chimes Marsha's voice with its extra boom.

The next weekend, he visits the hanging plants cafe with yet more reading. It rains much of the day, on-off summer rain that looks particularly sad and beautiful when the sun hits it. Mid-afternoon, Marsha walks in and lights upon on him without seeming surprised.

"Oh, hey," she says.


"Reading as ever."

Joe smiles and shrugs. This feels easier then when he last saw her, although he can't say why.

"I have some homework of my own to do."

"Sit here if you like."

"If that's okay. Thanks. Want a coffee?"

"Sure." He doesn't at this particular moment, but it seems wrong to say no. When she returns with two coffees, she also brings a slice of yellow polenta cake and two forks. He likes that she has chosen forks and not spoons. It seems like the adult choice, something his family would never do. He doesn't make any comment about her bringing the cake, and she doesn't ask if he wants any. He just makes sure to take a few bites, and she smiles when he does, as if knowing he would. He doesn't have a sweet tooth really, but it tastes good. He tells Marsha he doesn't even know what polenta is, and she smiles at him as she opens her bag, bringing out a couple of thick bound documents with plastic covers and big black words on them. He can't work out what these documents are, and he both fears and wants to know. Marsha explains nothing. All he can tell from her face as it sets in concentration is she doesn't want to read them but has to. She puts on a pair of dark rimmed spectacles and places a pen between her teeth, as if playing the part of someone studying hard will make her that person. He settles into his reading, surprised at his ability to concentrate with her there. He's grateful she is quiet, then finds there is something enjoyable in their shared silence. He is so used to dredging up things to say to people, then worrying they are the wrong things, it hadn't occurred to him that silence is a genuine, even pleasant option. Hours pass this way with occasional trips to the bathroom and coffee orders, and then she has to go. Well, see you around, she says, and he nods. Nothing has been mentioned of the lunch invitation or her visit to Lindsey's flat.

Later that day his mother asks him on the phone if he is meeting anyone nice, and he knows she means "girls." I need to focus on work, he tells her.

He starts reading in the café more frequently, sometimes even mid-week on a rare day off. His bosses notice his diligence, and one agent takes him out of the office for a "chat" about his future plans. He still doesn't know what to say about this topic beyond his enjoyment of reading and giving feedback. Keep on trucking and let's revisit this in a few months, she says, her voice brusque and free of pity.

In the weeks after their coinciding, Marsha is never in the café when he is there, if she even goes at all, and he is surprised at the trains of thought that can attack him now. Is she avoiding him? He thinks of her saying "just walk away" that time with Lindsey, who has been more distant with him since the three of them were in the kitchen. Or is he imagining that? Perhaps the perceived distance is to do with him being her tenant as well as her friend. Or she's preoccupied with her new boyfriend. At university, Lindsey and Joe's exchange was clear cut. He helped her write essays, racing against her hangovers towards each deadline, and she vouched for him socially. Which is what she's doing now by having him in her flat and dragging him to the pub or into the kitchen, but she's not writing essays now, she's working for a gin brand. She doesn't need help with being 22 at all; it's like she was made for it. Sometimes he feels as if the whole time they have known each other they have been nothing more than thrown together colleagues or distant cousins who counted themselves lucky they got on.

One day Lindsey finds a postcard amidst a pile of white envelopes she has brought up to the kitchen.

"Who sends postcards?" she screeches in mock disdain.

"Marsha does," he says, like he's trying to be droll back. He knows it's from her just from seeing the photo of Venice.

"What a weirdo. I last got a postcard from my grandmother."

He almost wants to defend Marsha for her charming, old-fashioned ways. He feels buoyant, like the postcard is for him, even though it's addressed to Lindsey and doesn't say much beyond classic "postcard-isms." Does Marsha really wish Lindsey "were here"? He decides the fact it's addressed only to her is a whole other way of communicating with him, a blatant omission of friendly indifference. Then it hits him that he might not see her again. For all he knows, she could have got a flight directly back to Canada. He wonders how regularly she visits her British father. Of course, he, Joe, might not remain in London. Certainly not if the internship doesn't lead to immediate paid employment. He's barely getting by, even with Lindsey's deal on the rent, even with walking to work each day to avoid buying a travelcard. Failing spectacularly to take in the sights of London is also a money-saver, but he's feeling the failure aspect more these days. He may as well be living in a village, not the capital. It's a pithy feeling, one he wanted to get away from by coming here. London offers the chance for anonymity, and he's not taking advantage of that, whatever that advantage could entail. It's not like there are even that many people he knows or cares for in this particular village. Sometimes it feels even smaller than a village, as if he's in a long boring play with a flat, an office, a café and only half a dozen characters. Marsha would be the stranger who "isn't from these parts," he thinks. Except now she might not reappear.

"I wish she'd come back," Lindsey says. "I told her Italy was a bad idea. Can you buy some washing up liquid next time you're out?"

Joe grunts a yes. It's all he can do to resist asking Lindsey why Marsha's trip is such a bad idea. But he feels stupid for resisting. He could ask just to make conversation and not worry that he sounds like a busybody or someone who cares a little too much. What does Lindsey care these days about his curiosity anyway?

One day his father calls when he's at work. Joe slides "decline," but the phone goes again five minutes later.

"It's your mother," his father says. "She's in hospital."


"Nothing to panic about. She's having a rest."


They edge around the topic of Joe visiting and he realizes getting his father to demand he visit his mother isn't achievable. He doesn't like this part of himself, the part that wants to be told to do what he should without question. His pregnant older sister is coming all the way from Edinburgh—that's how he knows it's serious. His mother hasn't had a "rest" in nearly a decade, and the previous time she was in and out within 48 hours. He knows, if he's honest about it, there have been other such rests in his early childhood. He wonders how to fit the visit in. The agents have him writing book reports now, not just marking comments. This reminds him of being at university, when life was about nailing an essay and not much more. The reports are easier than writing about Milton or Auden, but that means there are more of them as his bosses are pleased with his swift turnover. Don't get too good at work, Joe, Lindsey likes to tell him. He doesn't answer that, but he would like to tell her it's alright having parents who bought in Dalston at the right time. Still, he thinks, she's made a canny point. She doesn't need to be canny, but she is.

There is a new girl behind the counter when he next visits the cafe. She has her back to him while she fills a teapot with hot hissing water. Her black pony-tailed hair makes him think of Marsha. It's been several weeks since he last saw her. This woman is Marsha's height and build even, a little skinnier in her jeans and t-shirt. Nice figure, he thinks. He chooses a table—the usual one he likes, tucked in the window corner, which is free today. When he returns to the counter to collect his macchiato, the new girl isn't there. Her colleague stamps his reward card, and he heads back to his table, gets out his laptop. After a while, the WiFi drops out, so he gets up and asks if they might restart the router. The new girl is back, busily turned away from him, and he hopes she'll be more sympathetic to his plea than her colleague who usually shrugs away this sort of request.

"Joe! I wondered how long it would take before I saw you here."

And there facing him is Marsha, international opera singer, back from Venice and working in his café. Every time he has encountered her, she is a different Marsha—whoever Marsha is, this woman who keeps popping up for no reason—but this version is not one he can make into anything comprehensible. She is wearing her usual immaculate makeup but no red lipstick, and there are dark circles under her eyes not quite concealed. She doesn't look gaunt exactly, but she looks diminished, as if boiled down to some essence. Her face no longer makes the sense it once did to him. The difference in her is also sexy in some way he can't put his finger on, although he feels a little repulsion seeing her like this, doing this job, as if he caught her indisposed somehow. That, too, is not without appeal.

"Hey, Marsha. What are you doing here?"

Marsha closes her eyes and opens them while exhaling slowly through her nose as if he has no right to ask. Unless she is expressing dislike of her new position.

"Working? You know, that thing people do?"


Marsha looks properly wounded now. Idiot, why did you have to say "sorry"? Joe asks himself. He's not even sure what context he meant for the word.

"I didn't mean..."

"I know. Whatever."

Fidgety customers have built up behind him. Marsha's colleague shoots her a look.

"I gotta work," Marsha says in a tone he can't get his head around. And—snap—she shifts her gaze and smiles her movie smile at the man behind Joe who asks hurriedly for an oat milk latte.

Joe sits back down to consider his options. Remaining in a space with a woman he's just had an argument with—if that's what it was—is not something he's experienced before. If he leaves, he will give her the satisfaction of knowing the argument matters to him, which he is not willing to do. If he stays, he suspects they will engage in a dance of ignoring each other. It's easier for him to observe her than the other way round as she is the one drowning in orders, trying to balance cake slices and teapots on trays. At one point her face registers the kind of helplessness he remembers from his schooldays, when he was always forgetting a crucial permission slip or sports item at home. For all her worldliness, he observes she's not adept at arse-covering the way Lindsey is, and anyway, this is plainly the wrong job for her—he can see that from the increasing backlog of customers and the other girl's dull, furious expression whenever Marsha slips up.

Eventually there are a few lulls where Marsha has nothing to wipe or tidy or froth. She has a good view of him, doing whatever it is he is pretending to do. Work is out of the question for him today. Just go and say "I don't know what that was?" or "are you okay?" he tells himself. After another half hour, spent how he cannot say, he notices she is busy once more, and he packs his things away, pulls on his jacket, and shouts, "Bye, Marsha!" He's not sure if she hears him, but either way, she doesn't respond.

The following week he gets a couple of days off to visit his mother, who is still in the psychiatric wing of NNUH in Norwich. If you don't mind me going, train tickets are cheaper mid-week, he explains to his bosses.

"Don't even think like that," Garabette says. "It's your mum."

"I can get reading done on the train."

They bat away that idea like it's a mosquito, telling him everything can wait. He blinks, offering stuttered thanks. He's sure his showing fear of slipping behind on the work has now compromised him in their eyes. A young, robotic idiot who doesn't know his priorities in life. And yet, he's a little angry. The ease with which they have released him makes him question how much they need really him at all, despite the hours he puts in.

When he reaches the ward, he's glad to find his father is away driving, and his sister has been and gone for the day. His mother is slouched in a chair next to the bed, knitting a baby's cap. She looks rested. She talks a little slowly, but the normality of their conversation doesn't reassure him. It does the opposite. From where he's standing, from where he's looking, it's unclear what she will do. Neither of us have a plan, he thinks.

"Thanks for visiting me, my love," she says.


"I'm afraid I've let you down yet again."

"It's not like that."

She smiles weakly. "What's new with you?"

Joe tells her about the continued encouragement from the agent who said "keep on trucking" and how he feels confident enough now to apply for jobs at other agencies if he can't get one where he is. As he says it, he decides that is his plan. "But if it doesn't work out, I'll come home and work at the pub again. And just keep applying."

"Okay." She nods but doesn't smile. "Any girls?"

Joe starts a little. She has never been so direct with him before.

"There is someone. Sort of. Friend of Lindsey's."

"Oh?" Her eyes light up a little.

"I don't know where it's going. Probably nowhere. I don't know how long she's even in the country." His face heats up, as if the hospital is bugged and talking about Marsha this way, or even at all, is a punishable offense. He can tell the flush on his face is pleasing to his mother. He is glad she knows not to probe, knows she has been too daring, despite the reward of information.

"You never know where the most fleeting interaction can lead," she says. "As you know, your father was on holiday when we met in India. I was 32 and thought I'd never marry."

"Oh Mum, you're such a romantic." He doesn't want to hear it, the story he's been told so many times.

"Why do you think fantasies sell like they do? Sometimes they are actually real. Like you. So, they could happen to you."

A nurse comes in to check on her, and he's thankful for the interruption. Then he feels deflated by the woman's cheeriness and how well she seems to know his mother, another indication of his mother being here for some time. This nurse probably knows more about his parents' love story or lack of it than he does.

One thing the trip to Norwich does provide is respite from the problem of Marsha ruining the café for him by working there. Now that she is in a fixed space for a fixed amount of time, he has a power he didn't ask for, the power to collide with her, knowing she is captive in her shifts, and he fears her feeling sought out by him or even harassed. Or he fears the other thing: that she wants him to come, and then the wildest thought crosses his mind—that she got a job at the café so she could be sure of seeing him again. Except she's a grown woman in her 30s, and she could have got his number from Lindsey, or found him on social media anytime she wanted, and she hasn't. Or she could have got the job, hoping to see him and out of chance he might never have entered the café again.

He's being plain stupid, he thinks. Why shouldn't he use the café as normal? She'll probably be fired soon enough. All he ever wanted from it was a place to go that made him feel content and contained and wasn't his room or Lindsey's kitchen. Lindsey is on holiday for a few weeks now, and the flat is too quiet for him. Not so long ago, he would have embraced the quiet, but right now he wants to feel dulled by white noise and people.

One evening he walks past the café around nine, and to his surprise, it's still open. Or at least, it's still lit, and there are four or five people inside, like a lock-in of some kind. Marsha is there, telling them a story, it seems, almost acting it out like a game of charades with bold movements. Is she drunk? Transfixed by the spectacle, he stops to watch outside the main window, so big and spotless, it's like there's no barrier between him and the scene. Everyone laughs at something she says, and he can hear a little of their laughter, like a studio audience on a TV sitcom. Marsha pauses and smiles mid-gesture and looks down at the floor, as if bashfully suppressing a memory or confession. The smile lifts her cheeks into soft round globes, making her look surprisingly young, naïve even. This must have been her ten years ago, he thinks. Then she sees him outside and catches his eye, lips parting in surprise, and she lifts her finger to indicate he wait. This makes one of her audience notice him, and they open the door so he can step in. Marsha seems to have come to the end of her performance, and the crowd starts to disperse.

"Who were they?" he asks her, watching people leave.

"Just a few regulars. I was telling them a stupid story from my past for no reason."

"Ah." He doesn't ask about it. It's like he knows her well and she always does this.

"So, Joe. Where have you been?" She grins at him.

"Norwich. Visiting my mum. She's sick."

Marsha's grin fades quickly. "Sorry to hear that. Everything okay?"

"I think so," Joe says this slowly enough for Marsha to understand he doesn't want to get into it.

"Sounds like you could use a drink."

"I'm trying to cut down."

"'Trying to cut down?' Are you sixty?"

"Just saving money."

"Well, I'm all in favor of that. Hence my working here. Tell you what, I can grab us a couple of today's unsold croissants. There's a bottle of wine at my place."

"I don't want to intrude."

"I live literally around the corner, Joe." She is staring at him now. It amazes him how she can hold a stare with him, a deadweight power he can't imagine having over anyone. He wonders if it comes from her opera training, or if she stares at other people this way, but he hasn't seen her around enough people to know. She knows he will come with her, drink her wine. He says nothing, just lets her lead the way.

She lives on the third floor above a Chinese takeaway place reminding him of one of those old minicab offices that used to be everywhere. If it weren't for the smell permeating the stairwell, he'd wonder how hot food came out of such a cupboard. He's grateful for the stairs as they give him time to think, to work out how barely ten minutes ago he was walking home and now, via some alternate reality portal, he's about to enter Marsha's home instead. But he can't catch any thought at all except I'm about to enter her home. And then the stairs suddenly end, and she slinks in front of him, slipping the key into the lock, and suddenly they are in a room not much bigger than his, dominated by a double bed. The only other piece of furniture is a faded mango yellow armchair. There is no wardrobe or anything to make this room a bedroom, which makes the bed all the more apparent, like it's waiting to go into another room, except there aren't any other rooms, just a tiny kitchenette off to one side and a closet-like bathroom next to that. Clothes are strewn around the bed as well as a few random toiletries. Multiple suitcases are stacked in a corner, black and unsightly.

"Sorry about the mess. As my guest, you must have the chair."

Guest, he thinks, while she goes to the kitchen to find the wine. Who else might visit here? For all his thoughts about Marsha, he never imagined where she might live. Suddenly he feels like he has raced forward in time, and all he is doing now is reliving a memory of this night, just part of his early 20s and the few misadventures he had while he tried to set up a real life. He feels a longing for this real life, whatever it could be, so strong he could burst or cry. He hears the glug of wine being poured, and Marsha returns with two generous glasses of red, oversize by design and so clear and clean she might have bought them that day. Briefly, the sight of them makes him feel the way he did when she brought the two forks with the polenta cake. He finds he's glad of the wine right now, even though he wasn't lying when he said he wanted to drink less. He's worried about using alcohol to postpone certain feelings these days. She hands him a glass and positions herself on the carpeted floor at the foot of the bed, rather than on it, so she's looking up at him. The carpet has seen better days, and he feels a warmth for her that she doesn't care about sitting on it, a warmth flecked with a gentle nausea at her whole living set up, like the day he discovered she was working in the café.

"So, who you renting this place off?"

"The takeaway folks downstairs. They own the whole building and let me rent month by month while I figure things out. Lots to figure out."

"I hear you on the figuring stuff out." Joe lets out a sigh.

"Oh, come on." She sounds offended. "You're what, twenty-two? You'll be just fine. You're one of the good guys, remember? Or do you actually want me to tell you about the river of shit I have to navigate?"

Joe is stumped by this. Traces of resentment begin to stir in him. He's not crazy about this good guy business. Or how patronizing she sounds, how worldly-wise, like he's supposed to find that appealing. He says nothing. Marsha takes a big swallow of wine, and he does the same.

"Sorry, I say all the wrong things." Marsha says. "You probably noticed already. I can be really stupid. And I'm an asshole. You'll learn that about me in time."

How? he thinks. How will I learn that? Because I'll never see you again? Or because I will?

"How are you an asshole?"

"I left my husband and baby in Canada. That's how much of a qualified asshole I am."

A vacuum appears in his stomach, as if a little portion of outer space has got stuck there and is slowly expanding. The unreality of what she has said, the fiction of it, even though he stone-cold believes her.

"When did that happen?"

"I guess it's been three months."

"No one is a complete asshole. At least I don't think so."

"Oh, we're all complete assholes when we're born. Then some of us become really low-grade assholes." Marsha's face contorts a little. Don't cry, he thinks.

"So, you're separated from him? Your husband?"

"Well, he's not here, is he? I couldn't expect him to come here. Besides, he knows that's not what I want."

"What do you want?"

"At first I wanted to escape. Some people aren't right for parenthood."

"He's not?"

"No," Marsha says softly. "I'm not. I wanted to love the baby. But I didn't. Something bad, something chemical happened to me after he was born, but that's only part of it. I'm done making excuses for myself."

"I think my mother went through something like this." This is the first time Joe has turned this fact, if it's a fact, into words.

"With you?"

"And my sister."

"But she didn't leave, did she?"

"No. She left India to be with my dad. So, she'd already left. Her parents were angry, but they came around to it."

Marsha downs more wine as if in a hurry to finish it. "You make the best decision you can with who you are and your options at the time. It's just never enough." She loosens her hair from its elastic, letting it tumble, as if this action is part of the point she is making. Her hair is even longer than he remembers, and he can see a few grey roots swimming in the black. He wants to understand what she just said, but he can't. He can feel the words lodging in his head for a later date. When he sorts through them, will they be just as sharp or have a different meaning entirely? Or will he be different, when he comes to understand them, whenever that is?

"Why London? Come for the weather?"

"Ha. No, I came cos my Dad lives here. I have a British passport. I thought he would help me out once I got here, but I get the asshole gene from him, it appears."

Joe thinks of her father's smile, relaxed and easy like Marsha's movie smile. This makes the vacuum flare again in his stomach, and he sucks it in to make it go away. The movement of his stomach muscles makes Marsha look at them, and he feels seen by her as a physical being in a way he isn't sure has happened before, perhaps with anybody. She lets an arm extend along on the edge of the bed. She seems small right now, sitting on the floor, but not young the way she did in the café.

"How was he going to help you out?"

"I was hoping for a bit of financial help, but I forgot he's no use to me. Like I said, I'm stupid sometimes. I won't miss him when I go."

"You heading back to Canada?"

"At some point soon. To try and be less of an asshole. There's nothing keeping me here. My trip to Italy had some leads, but they didn't work out."

He nods like he understands. Marsha adjusts and re-crosses her legs, which makes her sit up straight against the bed. He can see a hole in the inner thigh of her jeans, revealing a bright, white coin of skin. She has nearly drained her glass, and he offers to fetch the wine from the kitchen. Why he's offered he's not sure as he doesn't think she should drink more, but she nods, so he finds the half-full bottle on the tiny kitchen counter. The croissants she saved are sitting in a cardboard tray, but there's something sad and unappealing about them, like they are incorrect props for a film. While he's staring at them, facing away from her, she starts talking again.

"So, Joe. That time I saw you in the cafe..."

"Yeah?" He turns to her.

"You weren't very nice to me."

He walks back to the armchair, puts the bottle down on the floor and sits down, facing her. She is now sitting on the edge of the bed, making their eyes level.

"What? When?"

"You don't even know what I'm talking about, do you?"

Joe had to admit he didn't.

"That time when you came into the café and saw I was working there. And you just looked like, I dunno, like I was some rabid dog you had hoped to lose. Like I shouldn't be there."

Joe looks at the carpet.

"I almost felt," Marsha continues, "as if I had intruded on your territory or something crazy. Cos that's the vibe I got."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I truly meant no harm."

"I wasn't working there for any other reason than needing to work. Actually, I like café work."

You don't like it one bit, he thinks. And it doesn't like you.

"It's a free country."

"That's all you have to say? Okay, I'll spell it out, then. It was the way you said, 'What are you doing here?' when you saw me behind the counter. Like I'd personally affronted you."

"I'm sorry." All I do is apologize to this woman, he thinks. He wants to explain that she's got it all wrong, but he can't find words. He's not just tipsy now—the intensity of this exchange has increased the wine's power. He feels the way he did when he left the pub that first time he had a conversation with her, but this time it's like he might be physically sick.

"I know, I know. You're a good guy, Joe. I know that, too. And I know I've boxed myself into the asshole corner, cos that's what I do. Thing is, I thought you liked me."

"I do like you."

"Evidently not much."

Is something supposed to happen now? he thinks. Or is she referring to his failure to notice he was rude two weeks ago? He never knows when he is supposed to act, not here, not at work, not anywhere. For the rest of my life, he thinks, I'll always need a prompt. A script. But what he says next surprises him.

"Could you stop calling me a 'good guy'? You hardly know me."

"Oh, I see."

"See what?

"You want to be bad."

"I don't know what you mean."

She gives him a confused look, and he is shocked by the fear in her eyes; it's like she doesn't know what comes next, either. Joe stands up slowly, unsure why he is even standing up. She leans forward a little.

"I think I should leave."

"Sure." She rises fast, turns away from him, and starts to straighten the duvet on her bed like it's someone else's duvet and she's a maid. He says nothing. He just stands there for a few seconds, picks up his coat, and then, seeing she is now fluffing the pillows, opens the door to the hallway.

"I'll see myself out," he says, and then he leaves so quickly there isn't time for her to so much as answer. He clicks her door shut swiftly and quietly, then waits for a moment at the top of the stairs. Why? In case she knows he's waiting there and will open the door and ask him back in? He tiptoes to her door and puts his ear to it. There is no sound or motion at all, as if she has magicked herself away like a genie. Next, he is rushing down the stairs, as if fleeing for his life, then walking crazy fast in the cold night air, turning the key in Lindsey's front door, closing the door of his room, and panting hard like he just escaped a mugging. Thankfully, Lindsey is out.


A month later, he's invited for another "chat" with the agent who sought him out before. She says there's an opening for an assistant role and he should apply. "Apply" isn't really the word in an agency as small as theirs, but it's the one she uses. Of course I'll apply, he tells her. Great, I'll put in a good word for you, she says.

He has six weeks of internship left. He should be applying for jobs at other agencies, like he announced to his mother he would. Instead he stares into space at every moment he shouldn't. In the pub with Lindsey and her boyfriend, at work when someone is talking to him, when the Overground pulls into Dalston Junction and he has to lurch his body out of the carriage, like it's this sack of old clothes he's been saddled with. In the immediate days after his visit to Marsha's home, he thought he might run into her again, as if that fractured visit decreed they must. Or she might finally drop a note at Lindsey's or find him on social media. He still has things planned in his head to write or say for when she makes contact. A whole array that his mind shuffles between according to his mood, hour by hour sometimes, but he doesn't know which is the right option. Soon it feels effortful to remember them all or care if they are right. He hasn't visited the café, but he's walked past it and checked for her out of the corner of his eye without so much as turning his head. He hasn't seen her there. She probably quit or got fired, he figures. He imagines her making a dash to Heathrow airport with one of those shabby suitcases he saw in her home. A couple of times he sees a well-dressed white-haired man on the street, but it's never her father. And what would he say to her father, should he smile at Joe in the street? You're an asshole? Your daughter says so? Why should he, Joe, have such information?

His mother has been discharged for over a month now, and his father texts frequently to say she's doing better. She's started volunteering at a local refugee center. Maybe she'll co-facilitate a refugee support group when she feels up to it. She needs a challenge to get her confidence back up, his father says, like it's a blood cell count. She is close to turning 60, and his father wants a meal out in Norwich to celebrate. Joe marks the date in his phone and tries not to think about it, hoping he will have a job confirmed by then to impress his parents.

One night he complains to Lindsey he doesn't know what to get his mother for her birthday.

"Books? You said she's a reader."

"I'm just so skint."

"One book then."

"Bit crap."

"Sorry you're skint. And sorry about the job."

"Yeah. I didn't want to assist that wanker anyway."

"I know, but it's so bloody typical. You're all positioned, like, and then they hire someone's stupid relative just for existing. Meritocracy is a dirty word."

Joe shrugs.

"You'll figure something out. Anyway, when is the birthday meal?"

"Not this Saturday but the next."

"Oh, no! You'll miss Marsha's leaving party. We're having it here."

"So, Marsha's finally leaving?" He says this without missing a beat.

"You didn't know? I thought you two were pals."

"Haven't seen her in a bit. This job stuff's been stressing me out."

"She's going back to Canada. A shame, but it's for the best."

"Sounds like the right thing to me."

Lindsey tilts her head like she's about to speak but then doesn't. Instead, she starts talking about the party, how she wants to theme the cocktails, and as he tries to listen, it's like her voice has a volume dial and someone is turning it down very slowly and defocusing the lines of her face at the same time, making her into a dream.

At his mother's birthday dinner, at her favorite Italian, he can't work out if she is enjoying herself, but she is at least appearing to. His father isn't trying to work it out at all—he just grins and raises his glass to anyone who will lift theirs, so Joe lifts his as often as possible. His sister is heavily pregnant now, and this makes him think of Marsha, pregnant herself not so long ago, the many distinct moments she must have spent with her husband planning for the offensively innocent baby growing in her. He doesn't like noticing things that conjure her, so he tells himself he's only thinking of her because he's missing her party. He does like the fact that he's missing it, and he pictures her asking someone in her breezy big-voiced way why he's not there, and the answer will have nothing to do with her. He still hasn't got a job in London, and soon he won't be able to afford rent. He'll be back in his childhood bedroom in a matter of weeks, days even, and this chapter, whatever it was, with his London room and internship and the café and the sad, high up room with the woman in it who once sang opera will be hermetically sealed, the whole thing a phase to move on from.

"Joseph!" his mother calls across the table. "You're doing that trippy thing again."


"See?" she says to his aunt, sat next to her. "He was a million miles away."

"I am here, Mum."

"My darling," she says, tearing off a piece of crust from her pizza. "Missing someone who is sitting right in front of you is an awful thing."