By Imogen Usherwood
'Small Hours' was a runner-up in the 2023 Oxford Review of Books Short Story Prize.
Was it really October, the last time you saw him? When you were down visiting Connor—God, all that way just to see Connor, what were you thinking—and you texted him to say you were in town, and he suggested meeting in that new café by the bridge which had opened after you graduated.
He paid for two coffees, which you felt bad about because you were earning (barely) and he was still a student—but he insisted, which was kind. The two of you sat in high-backed armchairs on either side of a polished wood table while he told you about his year abroad, and you told him about trying to get a job, any job, that wouldn’t make you want to gouge your eyes out with a rusty spoon. You’d spent the whole morning writing cover letters in what used to be your favourite café; you covered up the expiry date on your campus card with your thumb and they charged you the discounted price for a flat white.
Hadn’t you been doing something with Connor today, he asked, when you told him this. You explained that Connor was in lectures all day. Ah, the life of a scientist, he said, and nodded. Couldn’t be me.
By that time, you and Connor were increasingly less fascinated by each other. The novelty of how different you were—artsy type and hard man of science, respectively—had been exciting when you first met. You had enjoyed the raised eyebrows or looks of surprise that people gave you, a drama graduate, when they asked what your boyfriend did, and you said that he was getting his master’s in marine biology.
The two of you had probably got together—you’ve always danced around the phrase ‘fell in love’, both during and after the relationship—through a shared passion for talking about yourselves. You thought that you were both quite selfish people, really. And now you were starting to think, with him still a student and you having graduated already, that neither of you knew how to factor another person into your own selfish little lives anymore.
You said this to him, as you sat opposite each other drinking milky coffee, and he said that you didn’t sound happy, and that Connor probably wasn’t very happy either. After that, you spoke about other things: what it was like coming back to uni after his year in Calgary, whether he was still writing for the student newspaper (he used to have a very funny column about what was happening on campus each week). He asked you about the job hunt and that short film you’d been working on. After about ninety minutes, he looked apologetic and said he had to go, there was a meeting he had to get to—something with the English department—but it had been really nice to see you. He went one way and you the other, across the bridge to Connor’s place, where he had just got back from labs and asked what you wanted to do about dinner. That night, you slept with Connor for the last time, then took the train home in the morning.
Now, it is a warm evening in late March, and as you walk into a very clean kitchen in Chelsea with your friend Ellie and he sees you, and you embrace—him bending down a little for a bear hug, hands grazing your shoulder blades—you think, was it really October, the last time you saw each other? You recall the entire memory of that meeting in the time between the hug and him asking how you are. You’re good, thanks. How is he?
He looks well, you think, spring-cleaned: his hair is trimmed and his face clean-shaven. You think that he has, probably unwittingly, knowing him, got the dress code for this evening just right, in dark jeans and a pale shirt. You’re wearing a nice top, but the trousers are new and probably more colourful than trousers ought to be. No one has commented on them yet, which feels like a bad sign.
Ellie organised this evening quite quickly—her parents decided to go away for the weekend at short notice, and she immediately sent out dozens of Facebook invites to what she’s been calling ‘a little dinner party’. It happens to be the first week of the Easter vacation, so a lot of the guests are still students. There are a few people you know quite well, and others to whom you only speak at parties like this one.
This is a very nice house. You can understand why Ellie has not moved out yet. There are white walls and cream carpets and marble countertops, and a sliding wooden door that can be used to separate the kitchen from what Ellie calls ‘the snug’, which is apparently different from the living room. (As well as a snug and a living room, there is a lounge and a games room, which apparently are also different things.) The light switches are not switches at all, but small panels with several settings labelled with words like ‘relaxed, ‘full’ and ‘dim’, which are selected using a little silver tab on a sliding scale.
You have been to houses like this one before, and know that sometimes people can be apologetic about their family’s wealth. Ellie wears it easily, and earnestly thanks guests who say that her home is lovely, because it is. In front of the expensive white leather sofas, she has positioned olives, crisps and cheeses in colourful glass bowls, next to a small pot full of silver food picks. At half past seven, she calls everyone into the dining room and asks if you will help her bring out the food. There are plates of vegetables, rice, chips, chicken, pasta salad, sausages, vegan sausages, and a couple of things that you can’t identify. Ellie sticks large dessert spoons into each dish while you pass plates around.
Later, you are sitting on one of the expensive white leather sofas, behind the sliding wooden door which is now closed, holding a tumbler that contains mostly gin and not much lemonade. It’s that stage of the party when everyone is too drunk and too full but they still keep pouring out glasses of red wine and picking at the dish of leftover cheese straws, and he is sitting beside you.
When, you ask casually, was the last time you saw him?
October or November, he thinks. When you came down for a few days—he nearly mentions Connor by name but stops himself, which is kind even though you wouldn’t have cared—in that new coffee shop.
Definitely October, you say—it was before Halloween. He says that it feels like more recently than that, and you know what he means.
The party winds down until you can’t even make up any kind of card game with the remaining guests, so eventually they leave too. Ellie has invited you to stay over tonight, because you don’t live in London and the trains are chaos at the moment. She invited him to stay over too, and you realise that you don’t actually know where he’s from. He has definitely told you before, but you can’t remember, nor does he have a very traceable accent. Ellie shows you upstairs to a small room in which she has placed two inflatable mattresses, with bedding and cushions. There is a ping-pong table pushed against the far wall and a darts board on the back of the door; you suspect that this is the games room.
He wasn’t expecting this arrangement when he accepted the offer, he explains apologetically, after Ellie and her girlfriend have gone up another flight of stairs to her bedroom. He gestures to indicate the size of the house. You weren’t either, you say, but it’s fine, and nice that she got proper bedding out and everything.
And provided a room with walls and a floor and a ceiling, he says, with an eyebrow raised. Her generosity truly knows no bounds.
He uses the bathroom first, and then you go—in your flannel trousers and an old t-shirt, clutching a travel toothbrush that you bought from Boots on the way to the party because you forgot to pack one. One mattress is almost half the size of the other, and when you come back he has taken it that one. You get the light on your way in, hesitating over which of the six settings means ‘off’.
The duvet cover is so clean and well-pressed that it makes a crackling sound as you pull it over you in the dark. You’re lying on your back and watching the ceiling come into focus when he speaks.
I was sorry to hear about you and Connor, by the way, he says. You can tell from his voice that he’s lying on his side, facing the wall, away from you.
You thank him, but honestly he doesn’t need to be sorry—you ended it.
Yeah, it was—it wasn’t really a thing, or, maybe Connor thought it was, but, it wasn’t.
He understands. He’s glad, in that case. That you’re happy.
Thank you. I am thoroughly enjoying being selfish and single, you say.
There is a scrunching of starched bedsheets and when he speaks again, his voice sounds nearer; perhaps he is looking up at the ceiling too. You’ve said that before, he says. That you’re selfish. I don’t think you are.
I wasn’t willing to make sacrifices or changes to my life for the sake of another person, you say. Surely that’s the definition of selfishness.
You came to visit Connor, he says, when we went for coffee that time. October.
Once, you say. The other times he met me half-way.
Train tickets are expensive, he points out.
All I ever seem to do is get on trains at the moment, you start telling him. Everyone’s scattered all over the country. It’s like, for three years you get to live in a city with all of your friends, so you see them every day—but then you graduate and everyone moves to all these different places and you suddenly go from being really close friends to let’s-meet-for-coffee-once-every-six-months friends.
Being an adult is shit, he agrees.
So shit! And you tell him about a friend you’re seeing for dinner tomorrow in Holborn, and how you both saved the date six weeks in advance—she literally sent you an online calendar invite, like it was a meeting. But it’s the only chance you’ll get to see her, even if it means you have to wait in London all day until she’s free at six.
So I was right, he says.
You aren’t selfish. You’re giving up the whole day tomorrow just to see someone for dinner—that’s making a sacrifice for the sake of another person.
You laugh—it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, you say. I actually want to see her.
That’s just it, though, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel like you’re making sacrifices if you care about someone.
The room is very quiet, for a moment. Then you keep talking. Your phone is charging at the far end of the room and it’s too dark to check your watch, so you will never know how long you and he spoke for. You talk about the party, and about London and your weird relationships with it, and having money and not having money and Connor and Ellie and, at one point, the dissolution of the monasteries. You talk until one of you admits that maybe you both need some sleep.
Then you lie there, all night, on separate mattresses three feet apart, breathing in the same silent air.
IMOGEN USHERWOOD is a writer, playwright and theatre director, currently studying MSt Creative Writing at Oriel College. She has been published in Mslexia and Joyland, and was shortlisted for The Telegraph’s Cassandra Jardine Memorial Prize for non-fiction. She is represented by MMB Creative.