Writing

Magpie

All her house plants have died. It was perhaps the relentless heat, or too much water. Their waxy green leaves curled and turned brown. She didn’t notice when they started to wilt, too preoccupied with her own life to care for things whose sole purpose was to oxygenate the air and bend towards the light. The Swiss cheese plant in particular reminded her of the Victorian glasshouse in her home town, and she feels an unexpected wave of grief as she tips the roots and soil into a bin bag.

On Saturdays, she likes to walk through the park towards the high street, before circling back to her house. In the six months she has lived in this area, this has become something of a ritual, though she has never been particularly fond of routine. It is a leafy and affluent part of the city, and she often passes off-duty television personalities buying groceries and avoiding eye contact. Once, she saw her favourite childhood presenter buying a Christmas tree, and was struck by how ordinary he looked, approaching middle age, or perhaps already there.

The bad smell in the fridge turns out to be her housemate’s leftovers. She considers leaving a post-it on the shelf with a friendly note, perhaps a smiley face, but it doesn’t seem worth the hassle. She likes the women she lives with, though she never sees them. They’re older than her and also single, the five of them co-existing in this large property on the fringes of adulthood. 

She wants to see him this weekend, but knows it’s unlikely. They operate by his schedule most of the time. Her friends tell her to be less available, as this will make him want her more. The logic of this sits uncomfortably with her, though she knows this is how things work now. She lies in bed imagining conversations in which she tells him things about herself she has never told other people, not even her closest friends, and he listens quietly and holds her and she thinks about how wonderful this must be, to be loved by another person in this way. She knows this is not how it is, though, in reality. He hasn’t messaged her for a week.

‘HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!! See you soon, love you xoxo’. She sends the message to her best friend with a blank expression that betrays the sentiment of the text. She has never said those words, out loud. Technology makes it easier to communicate the things you wouldn’t in real life: to hurt people you don’t know with an unasked for critique in an online comment section, to slide into someone’s inbox with a direct: you up? It used to amuse her to think about their first private interaction, a cartoon graphic of some eyes that only she could see. It had no accompanying text, but she knew exactly what it meant. 

Their relationship exists in pixels and code. There is no tangible evidence of their knowing each other, no photographs or public displays. She wonders if they bumped into each other during the day, in public, would he kiss her or ignore her completely. Thinking about either outcome makes her feel sick. For the past four months, they have developed an unhealthy habit involving early mornings and night tubes. She doesn’t allow herself to call it a relationship, but she isn’t seeing anyone else. Sometimes she wonders if she should, to help diffuse the confusing, searing pain when he inevitably stops replying.

It’s midday, and she gazes out of the kitchen window, watching a magpie perched on her neighbour’s hedge. One for sorrow. Her eyes scan around the garden, hoping to catch sight of its mate to cancel out the low level dread she feels when she encounters one of these birds on its own. It doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it. One magpie means there is another somewhere else, probably with the nest, guarding and caring for their young. They work as a team, depending on the other completely. Two for joy. She tries to imagine what this must feel like, and closes the blinds.

music, Writing

Breaking up is hard to do (without music)

Picture the scene.

It’s late at night, maybe even early in the morning, technically. A young woman (great hair) is sitting on the bleachers of an open-sided auditorium. A young man (handsome) sits lower down the tier, deferring the words he needs to say, hands clasped together. Apologetic.

The air heaves with moisture and the smell of flecked pine. Cicadas chirrup in stereo, and distant bursts of adolescent laughter punctuate the otherwise silent theatre.

The girl is saying all the right things in reply, but she isn’t really listening, preferring to go through the motions.

“I’m grateful for our time together. We’ve both made mistakes. I don’t regret anything.”

She’s fighting back tears. As he kisses her goodbye for the last time, a singular thought enters her head:

This breakup would be so much better if it came with a banging soundtrack.

Here are my top five contemporary classical tracks to accompany the most painful moments of your life:

#1 The so devastating you puke both lungs out of your mouth from crying Breakup

I can’t listen to this track without feeling… whatever it is the sound of layered, open-chord strings trigger in your brain to make you start blubbing like a pathetic worm. Is it the sustained harmonies? The relentless repetition of the same slow violin melody? The second violin with the plaintive, soaring tune that sounds almost… hopeful? Like they might change their mind? PLS DON’T LEAVE ME. YOU CAN KEEP MY UNTHANKS VINYL, I CAN GET ANOTHER. I also love/hate how this track ends in a minor key, like Richter was thinking, ‘yeah, suck it nerds, this story doesn’t end happily.’ Ok.

#2 The thank god that dumpster fire is out of my life, I am now free Breakup

I mostly listen to Steve Reich records when I’m a) on a plane, b) on a train, c) hungover. I love his Clapping Music because it’s essentially cleverly coordinated applause, and when you finally end things with someone who quite honestly needed to gtfo of your life, what’s better than a group of people giving you a standing ovation as you high-five into this shiny new phase of your existence? Nothing, that’s what! Now you can go back to watching Bake Off in your egg-stained joggers like all those other solo sailors. Get yourself a six-pack of Red Stripe and crack on, pal. Clap clap clap, clap clap etc.

#3 The Breakup that only lasts, like, five days

The Ross and Rachel of contemporary classical breakup anthems. It’s a new one from Ólafur Arnalds called ‘momentary’, with a trendy small ‘m’ like Ariana Grande also did on her new album ‘sweetener’. I love Ariana Grande. She seems like she’d be so generous on a night out, getting the trays of sambuca in like a proper ledge.

Anyway, momentary pauses in relationships are something I don’t get, because to be quite honest if someone has the audacity to break up with me, they don’t get a second chance (ask my… [redacted number of] exes). This is probably why I’m single. I’m cold and unforgiving, like an industrial freezer. Whatever. Listen to this whole album, it’s great.

#4 The inevitable but nonetheless sad for practical reasons Breakup

You know the one. Maybe you’ve been together a year, two years. It’s not particularly exciting anymore. The spark has long fizzled, like flat Fanta. It’s all gone a bit crusty around the rim. You look at them watching the football one Saturday and think, hmm, didn’t really notice that weird way they exhale. Then you realise if you break up you’ll have to start paying 50% more rent, and wonder if the irritating breathing is a permanent thing. Maybe they just have a cat allergy? But then you remember you don’t have a cat. Just thirteen stone of bloke you want the heck out of your flat, which, yeah you’ll have to pay for, or get a roommate or something. Anyway. This track by the late Icelandic composer Jóhannsson is lovely. There’s a lot of sustain on the repeated piano track. Repetition, like the Groundhog hell of waking up to that numpty every single day. DUMP. HIM.

#5 The first term of university home bf/gf Breakup

This is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary classical music ever. It’s about flamingos. I remember listening to the whole soundtrack a lot in my first year of university when I got Spotify and stopped updating my iPod Shuffle with Blink-182 albums because I was an ~adult now. This track – with its sweet, sweet harp mimicking the migratory patterns of chill pink birds – is reminiscent of those lumbering relationships you have as an eighteen-year-old starting out in a new city, far from home. It’s the first time you feel like a proper grown up, drinking pints of stout in an old man pub and attempting to make small talk with people called Minty and Monty who wear musty tweed and sound like they’re from the 1860s. You actually kind of fancy Minty/Monty in an obscure way, so you Skype your girlfriend/boyfriend back home and break the news to them as kindly as possible. In second year, you make the mistake of moving in with Minty/Monty and realise how crippling their Daddy/Mummy issues are and wonder if you even really need a degree???