On his previous work trip the young man had brought her tulips. ‘Don’t say I never buy you flowers,’ he said as he handed them to her. They were from Amsterdam airport.
They were having drinks in the young man’s flat. He shared it with his friend, who was shorter than him. The young men stood either side of the cooker, drinking red wine. The girl sat opposite the cooker on an uncomfortable wooden chair.
‘I want a mistake-free future,’ the girl thought as the young men talked about the taller one’s trip and the shorter one’s weekend. Both of the young men were envious of the other’s experiences. The girl was bored by the conversation. She’d heard about the taller one’s adventures earlier on in the day, before they’d had sex in bright daylight. The girl had taken down her curtains to wash them. And the shorter one’s weekend was no different from any other. ‘I want a mistake-free future,’ she thought to herself again. She filled up her glass with the remaining wine and lowered her eyelids a little.
She was drunk by the time they finished talking. The phrase stayed in her mind as she brushed her teeth, went to bed, had more sex with the taller one, and when she woke up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. She thought about it in the morning as she drank tea before going to work.
‘A mistake-free future,’ she wrote down on a piece of paper towards the end of her shift. In the evening she went to a bar to meet the young men for post-work drinks. They sat side by side drinking pints of beer.
‘Alright,’ she said.
‘Alright,’ they said, first the taller one, then the shorter. The girl gave the taller one a kiss and went to the bar.
‘Is it still happy hour?’ she said to the barman.
‘You’ve got ten minutes.’
'I’ll have a bottle of wine then.’
‘How many glasses?’
‘All that to yourself?’ said the taller of the young men as she sat down on a chair opposite them.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Why not?’
‘Why not eh,’ said the shorter one. He raised his pint to clink her wine glass and she raised it up, even though it didn’t have any wine in it yet.
‘A mistake-free future,’ she said.
‘Yes, a brighter future,’ said the shorter of the young men, and the taller one said it also and clinked her empty glass too, then added ‘good call'.
Happy hour passed and the threesome were drunk. They didn’t want to go home, so they went to a student club night.
The young men joined the queue, the girl stood to the right of them, an add-on to the otherwise orderly line. The bouncers soon noticed and told her to move closer to the wall. The taller young man squeezed her shoulder and said, ‘This should be fun.’ She smiled at him without parting her lips.
Once they paid in and got their drinks, they stood and observed the other clubbers. The shorter young man looked for girls he might chat up, the taller young man looked at the other young men in there and compared his hairstyle to theirs.
‘I’m going to the toilet,’ the girl said.
‘OK, we’ll wait here,’ the taller young man said. He was holding his coat and she handed him hers.
There was a wait to go, on account of there only being two cubicles. The girl stood in-between two taller girls, making eye contact only with her own reflection in the mirror.
Neither of the young men stood where they said they would be. The girl went to the bar, but they weren’t there either. She went over to the dance-floor and stood on her tiptoes. She recognised the taller young man by his height, and his purple polo-shirt. As she pushed through the dancers she saw that he was talking to someone, a woman. His head was lowered, and the woman’s lips were by his left ear. When the woman saw the girl approaching she turned round and disappeared into the crowd.
‘Who was that?’ the girl asked.
‘Some girl,’ he said.
‘What did she want?’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘That I had a girlfriend.’
‘What did she say?’
‘Fuck her off.’
‘What did you say?’
‘What do you think I said?’
‘Why weren’t you where you said you’d be?’
‘I wanted to dance.’
‘Where’s our coats?’
He pointed in the direction of the cloak room where the shorter young man was standing with their coats. The girl nodded and took the taller one’s hand in hers. She opened her mouth to ask, ‘So you were dancing on your own?’ but she didn’t.
Two days later, the girl and the taller young man went for a meal. They sat on a table for two next to another table for two, on which sat a much fresher couple, who held hands across the table.
The food was slow to arrive. Once they got their starters, the girl watched as the young man ripped prawns apart with his short teeth. She sucked mushrooms off skewers and chewed them slowly.
‘Look,’ the girl said, ‘they do this every time.’ She turned her head to look at the conga of waiters and waitresses as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to a customer. The young man glanced over then carried on eating. The girl watched until it was finished. Twenty minutes later the same ritual was performed for someone else.
‘It’s a bit annoying,’ the young man said.
‘Must be annoying for them,’ the girl said.
‘They get paid to do it,’ he said.
The girl smirked, but the young man missed it. He was concentrating on savouring the taste of his last prawn.
‘I’m going to go for a cigarette,’ he said.
‘Alright,’ the girl said. While he was gone the girl eavesdropped on the conversation of the couple next to them.
‘The funny thing is,’ the man was saying, ‘I didn’t even know you liked me then.’ The girl looked over at the woman, who was looking shyly at the man and smiling.
The girl finished what was left in her wine glass and poured herself another one. She drank half of it quickly before the young man came back, so that he wouldn’t know she’d had more than him.
After the meal they went for cocktails. The bar was empty.
‘I came here for my 21st birthday,’ she said as the young man looked at the cocktail menu.
‘Oh yeah?’ he said, not looking up.
‘It was rammed,’ she said.
‘I’ll have a Tom Collins,’ he said. ‘What do you want?’
‘A Mojito,’ she said, looking at the barman.
‘You always get them.’
‘I like them,’ she said, and went to sit down in the middle one of the empty booths.
‘Well this has been nice,’ the young man said when they were on their second drink.
‘Yeah,’ the girl said.
On their way back the young man stopped the girl while they walked under a bridge. They kissed. Then kissed for longer while waiting for someone to walk past. They walked along another canal and the girl remembered how she’d had sex there with a previous boyfriend two summers before.
‘I like walking along the canal,’ the young man said.
‘Yeah, it’s nice,’ the girl said.
The last leg of the walk back took them through a narrow alleyway. One end looked onto a stagnant square of decorative water, the other onto a busy road. The young man stopped the girl and they started kissing again. Soon after they were having dry sex, initiated by the young man. The girl stood with her face to the brick wall and he lifted up her skirt and pulled down her knickers. She wasn’t aroused. He spat on his hand and rubbed it onto her vagina to get his dick in. He fucked her fast while making grunting noises which were in time with the thrusting. The wind was making the girl cold and she shivered.
They heard footsteps and the sound of a conversation. The young man pulled the girl’s skirt down. She turned round and said they should probably go home before they got caught. The young man reluctantly agreed and put his now limp penis back in his trousers.
‘We’ll have to do that again,’ he said upon returning to the flat. The girl realised she’d lost her hair-band.
‘Did you have a good time?’ the shorter of the young men said.
‘Yeah, the meal was really nice,’ said the girl. ‘We went for cocktails after.’ He didn’t look up from his magazine. The taller young man put the kettle on.
‘I’m taking a girl out tomorrow,’ the shorter young man said after a few second’s silence.
‘Yeah?’ the girl said.
‘Yeah. She wants to go to a strip club.’
‘A strip club?’ the girl said. ‘How strange.’
‘She’s Russian,’ he said, as if by way of explanation.
‘Where did you meet her?’
‘At work. She works for one of the other teams.’
‘How old is she?’
‘I’m not sure. Young. Maybe twenty.’
The girl nodded her head. The taller one brought their teas and they sat looking at the television. The taller one’s phone rang. He looked at it, then pressed the red button quickly.
‘Who was that?’ the girl said.
‘At this time?’
‘That’s why I’m not answering,’ he said, then went to the toilet.
An hour later the couple went to bed. The young man switched the light off. The girl undressed, leaving her clothes on the floor and put on one of the young man’s T-shirts, taken from his dirty pile. She counted to five in her head. Most nights it started on 6 or 7, but tonight she only had to count to five. He told her he needed to come, was still horny from the alleyway. First, he took hold of her thighs and brought her closer to him. Their hip bones clinked against each other, and the girl pulled away, just a little. The young man reached under the T-shirt and grabbed her left breast, a little roughly. There were usually five positions to get through, and tonight it was the same as usual, except he came quicker, as the girl predicted. She could usually make herself come by going on top, but tonight she couldn’t be bothered. She thought of the shorter one’s date with the Russian girl, and what they would talk about, and whether she’d hear them having sex the following night.
A week later the taller young man had another work trip. He stayed at the girl’s house as it was closer to the airport. His alarm clock went off five times, and the girl was fully awake by the time he got up and went for a shower. She sat up in bed and listened to the water. It made a different sound as the young man moved round the tub. He came out fifteen minutes later with a towel wrapped around his waist and a finger in his ear. He unhooked the towel and put it over his hair.
‘Stop looking at me,’ he said after catching the girl looking at him in the mirror.
‘Sorry,’ she said, and looked out of the window. Even though it was early, the sun was high up in the sky and the room felt hot. She pushed the covers off and stood up. She went to the bathroom and brushed her teeth. The young man put the hair dryer on.
‘Where’s he gone this time?’ someone at work asked her as she unfolded clothes and put them on hangers.
‘France,’ the girl said.
‘Don’t you get sick of him going away all the time?’
The girl hesitated for a second then said, ‘No.’
‘I would. I’d always wonder where he was, and who with.’
The girl didn’t say anything. She unfolded another dress and hung it up.
‘You must really trust him.’
‘Mmm.’ The girl smiled, then looked at her watch. ‘It’s time for my break,’ she said, then went upstairs to the staffroom.
Just before closing the girl had to deal with a complaint. The manager had gone home early. It put her in a bad mood and she decided she needed a drink. She rang the shorter of the young men and asked if he wanted to meet her.
‘Alright then,’ he said. ‘But I can’t stay long. I’m going out with the Russian again.’
They shared a bottle of wine and she told him about the annoying customer.
‘I’ve been looking at spreadsheets all day,’ he replied.
The girl smiled and poured the rest of the wine into their glasses, dividing it equally.
‘So tell me more about this Russian,’ she said.
‘She’s alright. Pretty. But a bit too unhinged for my liking.’
The girl nodded. She didn’t really want to hear more than that but he carried on.
‘I like her, but I’m not sure I’m ready to go out with someone who obviously needs a lot of support. You know? I think she’d get needy.’
The girl nodded, and took a big sip of her wine.
‘Anyway, how’s he getting on in France? You heard off him yet?’
‘He texted me today. Said the weather’s really nice.’
‘Lucky for some.’
The girl nodded and finished what was left in her glass. ‘Shall we get another bottle?’
The young man looked at his watch, then said, ‘Alright then. But we’ll have to drink it quick.’
The taller young man didn’t get back on the day he said he would. The girl sat by her large bedroom window. The curtains were still missing, somewhere in the dirty pile by the washing machine. She looked at her phone, pressed the button which lit up the screen, but nothing changed. Hours had passed from the time he was due at her house and still there was no phone-call. She thought about a plane crash, imagined how the plane would dip down towards the sea and what the water would look like from those little windows close up. Then she picked up the phone and rang him. There was a long pause before it made a noise, then those long beeps which meant the phone was in a different country. His voicemail came on, ‘Hi, you’ve reached…’ She rang him three more times, and on the fourth time there were no beeps, just the answering machine.
The girl went downstairs and put her washing on. She watched as the machine filled with water. A week’s worth of knickers and her curtains. As they spun, the flowers on them crumpled into unfamiliar shapes.
The next day the girl rang the shorter young man. He said he was feeling hung-over after meeting the Russian again, that she was insatiable and he’d have to break it off.
‘Have you heard from him?’ the girl interrupted.
‘No, I thought he was at yours.’
‘He didn’t come back. I rang him, but his phone rang out.’
‘And there’s been no plane crashes,’ the girl said.
‘I’ll try to ring him and call you back,’ the young man said and he hung up before the girl managed to say anything else.
As the shorter young man didn’t call back straight away the girl went for a shower. She shaved her legs, like the previous day, although this time she did it quickly, without making sure she didn’t miss a spot.
‘He’ll call you,’ the shorter young man said when he rang her back.
‘What do you mean?’ the girl said.
‘That’s what he said.’
‘But where is he? Why is he not answering his phone?’
‘He’s still in France. He said just wait for his call, and he’ll explain.’
The shorter young man wouldn’t tell her any more. The girl was going to be late for work if she didn’t hurry up, so she put her hair dryer or. She started crying and the hot air dried the tears. When she switched off the dryer, her cheeks were tight from the salt.
All through work the girl kept her phone in her pocket. When she came off her shift, the phone vibrated. The text was about a 2-4-1 cinema offer. She tried to ring the taller young man and this time there were no long beeps, just the answering machine. She rang the shorter young man and he didn’t pick up either. The girl didn’t want to go home so she went for a drink by herself. She got a glass of wine and sat outside smoking American cigarettes brought back from the last trip. ‘I want a mistake free future,’ she thought, and then she got up and left the nearly full pack of cigarettes on the table.
By the fourth day the girl stopped trying to call the taller young man. She went to work and left her phone in her locker, instead of putting it in her pocket. But when she finished work she rang the shorter young man and asked him if he’d meet her for a drink. He hesitated, but she assured him she wouldn’t any ask more questions about the taller young man, that she just wanted some company. He agreed to meet her in the bar the three of them always went to with the happy-hour offers.
The girl arrived first and bought a bottle of wine.
‘How many glasses today?’ asked the barman. He recognised her now.
‘Two,’ she said and took the wine to a small table in the corner. She sat down and poured herself a glass.
The shorter young man arrived ten minutes late, looking slightly dishevelled and sweaty.
‘I ran all the way here,’ he said. ‘Got caught up at work.’
‘Busy week?’ the girl said.
‘No, it’s that Russian. She was demanding to know where I was going. Bit of a mistake, that one.’
The girl laughed. ‘Glass of wine?’ she said.
‘Yes please,’ he said, and the girl poured it right to the top of the glass.
Later, the shorter young man bought another bottle, even though the happy hour had finished.
Just before closing time the girl went to the toilet and took her purse out of her bag. She took £2 out and put it in the condom machine. She pressed the button which said ‘Extra Safe’.
The taller young man was feeling nauseated. The airport was full of holiday makers on their way home. It was 7a.m. and he was tired, unable to sleep during the flight. He left his empty luggage trolley and went to the toilet. He threw up, and all that came up was white liquid followed by brown bile. When he got back to the baggage reclaim his suitcase was one of two circling round.
It started raining as he got in a taxi.
‘Where to?’ said the driver and the young man hesitated for a second then said his address.   When he got back to his flat, the door was locked. He unlocked it and said ‘I’m back,’ but there was no answer. ‘He must be already in work,’ thought the taller young man. He walked through to the kitchen where there were piles of plates stacked up by the dishwasher and several wine glasses, some with lipstick marks on, some without. He picked up the kettle and filled it with water.
He drank the tea he made sitting on the sofa in the living-room. The previous day’s paper lay on the coffee table unread. He picked it up and opened it and looked at the headlines but didn’t read any of the articles. He got a cigarette out of his coat pocket and smoked it. Outside the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.
When he finished his tea, the young man looked at his watch, 8.30a.m. He got his phone out of his pocket and switched it on. The phone started flashing with text messages telling him he had voicemails. He scrolled down on the girl’s name and pressed the green button. The phone rang out. He tried again a few minutes later, and again she didn’t pick up. The young man stood up and started walking round the flat. His shoes made a squeaky noise as he turned corners on the laminate floor. He walked out of the living-room into the hall, and as he walked past the shorter young man’s room, he noticed something red on the carpet by the pile of dirty clothes. He went in, but stopped before he was close enough to pick it up. A red ribbon, still tied in a bow, one of many colours the girl wore when she couldn’t be bothered to wash her hair.
He left the flat and walked to the girl’s house, normally a twenty minute walk, but he was there in ten minutes.
When he rang the bell there was no answer. He banged on the frosted glass door with his fist and it hurt his knuckles. Still, no-one came to the door. He pressed his nose against the glass and called her name. Then he turned round, walked up to the main road and waited for a bus into town.
Later that morning the young man went into the girl’s work, but was told she was off for a week. He spent the rest of the day drinking on his own in various bars, calling her phone every few minutes, then with lesser frequency as the day went on. When it got dark he got a taxi back to her house. The door was still locked, so he walked down the small crevice in-between the garage and the fence. It was filled with bits of brick to stop trespassers and he caught his shoe on one of them and scratched it. He swore, then carried on to the back garden.
The young man tried the living-room patio door, which the girl often forgot to lock. It was open, and he went in. It was cold inside. He walked over to the light-switch and pressed it. All her pictures were gone from the wall, as was her TV, and books. The room was empty, bar for the couch and coffee table, which were there when she moved in. He sat down on the couch and closed his eyes.
It was morning when the young man woke up, but still grey outside. He stood up and looked out of the window. The garden outside overlooked a cricket ground, but the view was obscured by what he failed to see the previous night; the girl’s bedroom curtains on the washing line, getting wet in the rain.