We're With You. I'm Here.
He was so beautiful. Blue eyes. Tattoos. Thick hair that curled over his forehead. And talented but also sincere. And a bit broken. ‘I suppose I want to fix him,’ she told Richard, her therapist. ‘But mainly, I just really fancy him.’
‘But you know he isn’t real?’
Yes I know he isn’t fucking real, she didn’t say.
‘I’m not sure that matters,’ she did say, instead.
There was a silence as Richard looked at her and took a slow sip of his tea. She could hear him swallow, the closing of his throat and the downward flow towards his stomach.
‘It’s just so time consuming’, she whispered to fill the silence.
Claire had been coming to see Richard every Thursday evening, on and off, for three years. It took a sizable chunk of her monthly pay, which as midwife at the city hospital meant there was not a lot left over. He was helping her come to terms with the real world. To build a bridge back to it. But she was still deciding if she wanted to tread his metaphorical path.
‘What’s that noise?’ she said suddenly. It was a sickening scrambling, the crumbling of mortar from inside a wall.
‘Oh, I think a bird fell down the chimney yesterday,’ he said, politely. ‘I don’t think it has long left now. Sorry. It’s not ideal’. He winced as the bird began scratching frantically behind the blank white wall.
‘Can’t you get it out?’
‘No, the fireplace is boarded over so its only way is up. It’s hard to communicate that with a bird though’. Richard cleared his throat and continued, his voice slightly louder now. ‘How long has it been since you Googled him?’
‘Not since Tuesday’. The flapping slowed. ‘I watched a YouTube interview and actually I turned it off before it got to the end. Which I thought was good. Have you Googled how to get a bird out of a chimney?’
Richard shook his head and tried to ignore the muffled cooing. It was a pigeon, she was sure, its movements had weight and terror.
‘Anyway,’ she went on, ‘I spent an hour the other day just imagining a scenario where he and I had an argument. It was his fault, and I was pretty forgiving. We talked, we made up and then it was more beautiful than before. A whole hour thinking of that. I could have run 10k in that time. Or read the news.’
Claire had been fabricating relationships with television characters for most of her adult life. They were short but intense. It started with the binge watching of a series, followed by a more considered rewatching – the sex scenes, the emotional episodes. Then a gorgeous, heady, hungry three weeks or so of almost constant imagining and closeness. He would be there with her as she slept, and as she sipped her morning tea, he was there at work breaks and the birth of new babies. She would know his body, the warmth of his skin, the urgent touch of his tattooed hands.
And then it would stop. Almost overnight it would become ridiculous. She was still in the infatuation phase with this one though.
‘Jesus Richard, should we call someone? The RSPB? A chimney sweep – do they even still exist?’ The noise was slowing now. She thought of the bird’s broken wings catching against the bricks. Grasping red claws. Round eyes in the darkness. Come on Pigeon, she mouthed, climb up towards the light.
‘I think you need to forget the bird Claire,’ said Richard. ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ He took a long breath in and out. ‘Tell me, have you managed to catch up with some friends this week?’ he probed. ‘We had talked about that in our last session.’ He laced his long fingers together on his lap.
She had shared a Chinese takeaway with her housemate Billy on Tuesday, and then they had sat next to each other scrolling TikTok. ‘I had a coffee with Emily too, in the middle of a night shift,’ she added. ‘I spend a lot of time with real people. That’s not what I’m short of.’
She had tried relationships with actual humans, and they had been fine. But the perfection of a person on screen is hard to compete with. There was a guy who had got a piece of spinach stuck to his chin during dinner once and she had found that hard to get past. She struggled with thinning hairlines and chapped lips. The universal inclination to talk politics. Things can’t be edited out of real life.
‘What if we knocked through the wall Richard? It’s probably just a piece of painted MDF’.
‘I rent this room by the hour; we can’t do that,’ he answered weakly.
Claire got up and walked to the wall. She put her hand against it and imagined his gentle tattooed hands alongside hers. ‘Come on little bird,’ he would say if he were there. ‘Hang on in there, we’re with you. I’m here’. He would take Claire’s hand and look deep into her eyes with his very blue ones and the cooing would stop. She pressed her ear against the cold white wall and listened for signs of life.
Lucy Townsend is a journalist and writer who has been writing fiction for the past few years. She won Brighton Book Festival’s Emerging Author competition last summer and is now working on a short story collection. Lucy is an obsessive listener of the New Yorker: Fiction podcast and loves Haruki Murakami, Deborah Levy and Lorrie Moore.