“Bloody hell, it’s true!” said Gavin, staring incredulously at the plant bursting out of the yellow plastic plant pot. The plant, with its the orange and black flowers, shone amid the scattering of items adorning the desk – old receipts, a pair of lost and since refound Oyster cards, a crumpled version of the Economist, a few dusty socks and a remote for a long since broken TV.
“Yeah, well, I was in the shop and thought I’d add a little touch in here, you know,” Tom said, wafting the hem of his T-shirt as he talked.
“A little touch,” Gavin repeated. “Better than just touching yourself as usual, I suppose.”
“Piss off,” Tom said, grinning.
“Do you reckon those flowers are going to even last a week in here?” Gavin said, tilting his head towards the single window in Tom’s room. It was a small rectangle of frosted grass, designed to obscure the view of the dingy path at the side of the house that housed the wheelie bins – plus a heaped assortment of food packaging that had failed to make it into the bins over recent years and had since rusted or faded.
“Says on the label it’s suitable for all interior environments.”
“Pah, must be genetically modified or something.”
“I dunno. Looks nice, I think,” says Tom.
“Nick told me there was some bullshit sales talk on the tag?”
“It’s a harmony tulip plant. Go on, enlighten yourself!”
Gavin stepped gingerly over the haphazard layer of newspapers over the floor. He wanted to avoid stepping with his polished office shoes on the smattering of discarded beer cans, at least a couple of which had been abandoned with some contents lingering inside.
“Madagascan Harmony Tulip plant,” Gavin read out loud. His suit trousers stretched while he bent and read the label. “This delightfully bold plant offers the ultimate botanic solution for those seeking a constant dose of harmony in the home.”
“Nice, isn’t it?” asked Tom.
“Dearie me. I think I’ll stick to my own botanic solution for guaranteed harmony, thank you.” Tom placed his index and middle finger to his lips and made a puffing gesture. “You coming to Nick’s room later for a smoke? He’s trying this new supplier.”
“I think I might pass. I picked up a 12-pack of Grabnius on special offer at the supermarket along with the plant.”
“No wonder it’s on special offer. That stuff is rank. You need to try some Pontius Praga.”
Tom was taken aback. Gavin had been raving about how wonderful Grabnius was just a few weeks ago when be brought a bottle back to share in the kitchen after a night out.
“Pontius Praga – that’s not one of those poncey micro-brewery beers they don’t even sell you unless you have a beard, is it?”
“Ha – well they don’t do it in multipacks, so it’s not one you see many unemployed people buying.”
“Go and get high, you loser!” Tom said, grinning.
“Oh sorry, I’ll leave you to enjoy your mass-produced cats’ piss in the presence of your mutant tulips. Actually the plant might love a few sips, it’s got a hint of Miracle Gro to it.”
“Very funny. Nick told me you had a letter for me?”
“Oh jeez, yeah I think it came when you were over at your parents. I dunno where I put it, but I’ll take a look.”
“Yeah if you can, I’m still waiting to hear back from the civil service graduate scheme.”
“Ha yeah, like they’re going to employ a pisshead!”
Tom slammed his door shut and smiled. He went to the plant and sniffed at the flowers. What he hadn’t told his flatmate was that he bought the plant as a ploy in winning Marianne back.
He’d never before noticed there was a small garden section at the supermarket, but as he was picking up the beer he overheard a couple of arty young women buzzing with excitement over the harmony tulips.
‘That’s the kind of thing Marianne might like,’ he thought.
The yellow pot was a nice touch, and the swirly blue font carrying all the spiel on the pot-shaped label added a hipsterish touch. Instead of feeling like a middle aged man in a garden shop as he took the plant to the checkout, he felt like a kind of pioneer – perhaps a Scandinavian web designer getting a trendy plant to brighten up his office.
Tom was feeling pleasure at his purchase until his flatmate Nick laughed when seeing him holding the plant at the front door. At the same time he was struggling with a carrier bag threatening to burst from the weight of the beer cans.
“Sorry mate, I don’t know what’s so funny about you buying a plant, it’s just….I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you buy anything other than booze or pizza,” Nick said.
Tom sat on his bed. It was time to call her. His conscience had been nagging him all day. “It could be your last chance, what have you got to lose?” it had called out as he clicked his way through a few games of internet poker after breakfast. “Do you really want to wait till it’s too late and realise you’ll never know what could have happened…if you’d only just have picked the phone up,” it had argued as he thought about it at the chicken shop as his lunch sizzled behind the counter. “Just man up and do it!” it had cried as he strolled around the giant supermarket.
He was going to do it, that much he was sure of. He could feel his heart racing through his hoody. He’d have to be ready for it though. Tom looked at his laptop and closed a couple of porn sites that had been left open since the morning. He circled his neck around to relax his muscles.
Then he reached down to the plastic bag and picked up a can of Grabnius. The metallic ‘ping’ of the ring pull as the can opened immediately sharpened Tom’s mind, a bit like a referee whistling to start a match.
‘What to say exactly?’ he thought to himself. ‘Should I start by apologising for last time or just hope she’s over it?’
He raced through the first can, his gums feeling sore from each fizzy gulp.
By the start of the second can, his mind was clearing out the anxieties that troubled him from time to time – not relentlessly, but a bit like a nuisance neighbour who you might get annoyed thinking about even when they’re actually on holiday. For instance, the poorly disguised disappointment in his mother’s voice when phone conversations turned to “how are the job applications going?” which had developed into “still no luck with the applications?” and more recently “how are you spending your time these days?”
He picked up his phone and scrolled through his contacts to find Marianne’s number. His heart protested with a thunderous pulse and he put the phone face down on the duvet of his IKEA bed to placate it. He sighed and tilted the dregs of the second can down his throat, before placing it on the floor.
Tom liked his bedsit room. An outsider might presume his life there was defined by inactivity and boredom, but the other guys were quite alright. The lack of a living room and its location in Zone 7 also helped make the ground floor apartment somewhere Tom could live after his parents had begun capping their rent contributions and still make the occasional interview easily on the tube. The lack of a living room meant the bedrooms were a little bigger than in other flats on the market. All the better to offer him his very own splendid isolation – a space where he could drink what he want, watch Netflix all night until the early hours if he wanted to, even bet on Mexican football at four in the morning.
But tonight was all about Marianne. He’d been thinking about her a lot again recently, especially when he was trying to sleep. All those thoughts seemed to have some kind of momentum propelling him to act, and didn’t that also mean there was something in it – something indicating that it was all meant to be?
Tom clicked on the laptop to look at the photo he loved – Marianne grinning as she leant against a railing on the South Bank in a blue summer dress, a glass of gin and lemonade in her left hand with a pink straw poking out. It was the same grin she’d sported when he’d watched her dancing with her friend in the pub on the night they met – sweet, authentic and brimming with positivity.
He sipped and slurped his way through another can as he watched a couple of Sinead O’Connor videos on YouTube. A song of hers had been playing the moment he met Marianne, and he wanted to transport himself right back into that state of mind. It had been a night when the pints in an Irish pub in Islington had given him an easy smile, and the mixture – all so difficult to recreate – of just enough alcohol, the right company, the right mood on the day and the perfect vibe had made him feel ultra-positive. A time when the cogs that wound to produce whatever came out of his mouth, often so clunky and stiff, and unable to express his true intentions, whirred and buzzed with ease.
“See that blonde over there, I’m gonna ask her for a drink!” Tom had told Gavin back on that night.
“Uh, oh, move over Casanova!” he replied, giggling. “Tell you what mate, if you don’t end up getting slapped, I’ll get you a pint.”
Tom kept on repeating the videos. He put his torrent of thoughts about Marianne to one side, and reflected for a moment about how good Sinead O’Conner is. Given her stunning voice and catchy songs, it struck him as bizarre you don’t hear here more frequently, but then she’s too rocky for the pop radio stations, too poppy for the rock stations, too unpopular for the classic hit stations and too weird to be heard in cool bars. But a couple of clicks on the internet, and there she is, in 1989, a bouncy 21-year-old Sinead O’Connor revelling in her very own niche, belting out a song at the Grammy’s with a skip in her step and grin on her face.
The more he replayed that song, the more it helped oscillate dormant stores of passion inside him. He guzzled through the rest of the can and grabbed another. Tonight he’d try to win Marianne’s heart, and tomorrow he’d get a job, Tom decided. All these graduate schemes with never-ending online application forms were a draining waste of time, he realised. He was going to take the fight to them. He would call employer after employer and if there was any opening he’d drop by their offices, then shake as many hands as he needed to until he landed his dream job. His 2:2 in English was an uncomfortable focal point to his CV, but he’d joke about that and concentrate on everything else he had to offer. He’d been quite good at French and only hadn’t taken it further as his best friend at school called it a waste of time and badgered him that for all his studying he was nowhere near as good as Google Translate. He could pick French up again, hell, he could maybe work in Paris for a while. He could even sing a Sinead O’Connor song at the interview if he needed to.
His inebriation was reaching the stage when his thoughts became slow and base, yet deliberate and determined. Time to call. Go on!
Tom pressed the dial icon next to her name on his phone.
He closed his eyes momentarily. ‘Please don’t answer, please don’t answer, please don’t answer,’ he thought to himself – so determinedly it almost spilled out as a whisper.
It was ringing. The clock indicating the call time wound to 0:05, adding a second after every pair of Tom’s heartbeats, until it reached 0:10 and 0:12.
Tom clicked on ‘end call’.
Phew, he thought. That was a close one, what was I thinking?
He scooped a can off the floor and tried to take another gulp, only to have accidentally taken an empty can. He corrected his error.
Having made a missed call provided the perfect excuse to send a text message. That should be less stressful, Tom figured.
“Hi Marianne,” he began to write.
“I can’t say sorry enough,” he typed in. He liked that. It was to-the-point and honest.
“What are you doing tonight? I’m listening to Sinead O’Connor and admiring my new plant – it’s a Harmony Rose”. Tom clicked send. Better not be too to-the-point.
He turned his phone face down again and leant against the bedroom wall as he drank some more. After five minutes he flipped the phone over. Nothing.
Damn. Maybe it sounded too contrived to now be listening to the artist he had nodded his head to when he carried the rum and coke back to Marianne on the night they met. Too obsessive.
“It’s the first time I’ve listened to SOC since that time we met. You know what’s really wired – I always thought she was singing ‘Hand in Glove’ on that song, and she’s actually singing ‘Mandinka’. I do like her accent though.” Tom clicked send.
Oh no, he thought, looking at his phone, I’m drunk. Only a drunk could have written that message. He had written wired instead of weird, and dished out empty praise on Sinead O’Connor’s accent just because Marianne’s mother was from Sligo and he didn’t want to imply it was tough to understand Irish people.
Tom took a few more long sips of the Grabnius. Still no reply from Marianne. Maybe she was asleep. Or in the cinema. Or making love to another guy.
Damn it, this tiptoeing around isn’t going to get me anywhere, Tom thought. I have to be clear. Ask the question, just like when he held his hand out in the bar inviting Marianne to dance, just like when he said she had a pretty smile, when he grabbed her by the hip, just like when her friend went to the toilet he asked her if she wanted to sit, just like when they chatted and laughed like long-time friends – so much so that neither of them ever got around to asking that horrid ‘so, what do you do for a living?’ question – just like he was able to laugh along with her talk about the characters on a comedy show he’d never even heard of, just like he ran to get some napkins to help when she knocked her gin and tonic over and just like when their lips first met.
“To be honest, Marianne, I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past days.” Tom tapped on ‘send’ again.
He couldn’t help but cherish his recollections now. He remembered how amazingly snug it felt to have Marianne clinging on to him, squeezing his hand as they kissed, oblivious to the rest of the bar, and still holding on as they waited to take a taxi home.
“Things have been a bit tough recently, but when I think of you I always cheer up.”
Tom burped. He smiled as he recalled leading Marianne by the hand to his bedroom that night.
“If you want to relax while I go to the toilet, and then we could maybe watch something?” he had said. She had responded with a knowing smile. Then he had gone to vomit in the toilet, and had knocked on Gavin’s door, as quietly as he could in the circumstances, which was actually unbearably loud, to ask for a condom and some tic tacs. Then he had become filled with anxiety as he pinched at his numb privates through his alcohol-stained jeans and reflected he was likely too drunk to perform.
It had been a relief to see Marianne sleeping in his bed – clothed and still in shoes – as he returned to the room. He climbed in next to her, put his arm around her waist and felt her soft heartbeat. He woke up a few times that night near ecstatic to realise it wasn’t a dream, and that this beautiful young lady had entered his room. It was as if a few strokes of a masterpiece had just been dashed on the gigantic empty canvas of his life, with the paint not even dry to the touch. He clung on to her tummy and stroked her hair while she slept.
“I’ve got to be truthful with you Marianne. I dream all the time of just holding you again one day – even if it’s just for a few seconds, it’ll be the closest I ever get to heaven.” Tom clicked ‘send’ again.
A whirring in Tom’s stomach alerted him that the beer was making him queasy. He tossed the phone aside and snapped close the computer, which was still displaying the photo of Marianne by the Thames on her Instagram page. Sweat formed on his forehead. Wasn’t her behaviour the morning after that night, seven months ago, a sign she wasn’t interested? He had been awoken by a shriek, and Marianne said, with startled eyes “Oh my God, oh my God! How the hell did I end up here!?” before grabbing her jacket from the desk where the tulips now stood and darting out of the door. That was the last he had seen of her.
Tom closed his eyes.
He was awoken by a frantic knocking on his bedroom door.
“Tom!” cried Gavin. “Two coppers are at the door! Don’t tell me you’ve been contacting that girl again?”
Tom was silent. He didn’t know what to say.
“For heaven’s sake! You’ve got to leave it!”