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'Ghosted' by Gavin Hayes, LISP 2022 Short Story Winner

LISP 2022 Short Story Winner, 'Ghosted' by Gavin Hayes

Ghosted

Livvy (MatchMe)

So, let’s meet up soon? Get a drink, maybe?

Is that too forward??

Luke

That sounds great! Would be awesome to finally meet you.


I let my finger hover over send until the minute digit clicked over, rested the phone on the arm of the sofa, screen down, then physically cringed at my use of ‘awesome’. Who did I think I was? An American?

It had been two weeks since I had matched with Livvy on MatchMe. It felt like we’d talked non-stop, but I was yet to build up the courage to ask her on a date – and now she had asked me! For the last few nights, my phone had chimed well into the early hours as we talked about our joint dream of owning a vinyl record shop, our shared passion for Mexican food and hatred for any film featuring James Cordon. I’d sat in darkness, my face illuminated by the bright white glow of my phone, until my eyelids had grown heavy. We had connected. Livvy was different. The last few months on MatchMe had brought nothing but one-word responses or dry chat. I had trouble moving the conversation with one girl away from her ex, and another even sent me pictures of the guy she was seeing that evening and asked my opinion.

On the last two dates I’d gone on, both women had stopped answering my texts the next day and the most recent experience of anything close to a ‘relationship’ had ended in a similar fashion. I’d only dated Samantha for a couple of months – nothing too serious – we would lounge around each other’s flats, bring each other ice cream, stifle giggles in art galleries. Then one weekend she ‘had plans’. The following weekend she was ‘too exhausted’. And by the next weekend she stopped responding to my messages altogether. A month later she posted a photo on Instagram – she was on a beach, her arms around the kind of guy who wouldn’t look out of place in a Topman catalogue. Long, floppy hair. Chiselled jawline. Beneath the caption read ‘Two months with this one. My world.’ Samantha’s time with me and Mr Topshop had overlapped, and I’d obviously lost the contest. If only she’d cared enough to tell me.

My phone pinged and I took the time to finish my drink before I opened the message.


Livvy (MatchMe)

Excellent! Let’s not invite Cordon though.

Luke

Haha! Deal.

So when are you free?


The episode of Family Guy I was watching had finished by the time I realised she hadn’t responded yet. I resisted the urge to check my phone – cautious not to revisit old bad habits – filled my glass with water and headed to bed.

***

The heat through the curtains woke me up unreasonably early and I immediately rolled over and picked up my phone. No messages. I huffed and lay on the mattress, feet wafting out from under the duvet. I lay there for an hour, resisting the urge to scroll through twitter or Facebook or Instagram, or start flicking through the matches on offer at MatchMe. I just listened. To the engines of the city below. To the bee bumping lazily against the windowpane.

I’d picked up the phone before it finished its first vibration.

‘It’s your mother. Get up!’ came the squawk from the other end of the phone.

‘I’m awake, Mum. I’m up and about. I have been for ages.’

‘Your sister’s having a meltdown. The tailors have cancelled your appointment next week. They can fit you in today but they need you to be there within the hour. I’ve told them you’re already on your way.’

I sighed and pushed the duvet off the bed, stepping through the piles of discarded clothes and music magazines, the carpet uncomfortably warm beneath my feet. ‘It’s the other side of London, Mum.’

‘It’s your sister's wedding. It's important. Do it for her.’

The bathroom mirror was not my friend. My skin was pale as milk and my eyes were small and piggy. ‘Alright,’ I sighed into the phone, sneaking a glance for any messages. ‘But I hope she is at least appreciative that...’

But Mum had already gone.

***

I’d spent an hour being prodded and poked and stitched into a hideous moss green suit that did nothing for my complexion. The woman who owned Absolute Bridal called me Levi for the whole fitting, and though I, at first, politely corrected her, I soon adopted my new name out of convenience and in the hope that she would speed through the fitting.

My fingers itched. I tapped them against my thighs, ran them though my hair and chewed at the skin on my left index, casting glances at my jacket from across the room. I’d unlocked my phone screen before I’d left the bridal shop and felt the familiar sense of deflation. No messages. Within seconds I was enveloped by the crowd on Tottenham Court Road. I weaved between the tourists and the office workers and the hipsters. A couple, speaking rapidly in Welsh to each other as they gazed into shop windows, hands linked, blocking the walkway, seemed unfazed by my huffs and puffs and attempts to dodge around them. It was easy to become invisible in London.

I picked up some bottles of cheap lager from the shop below my flat and trudged up the gloomy stairway. The first thing I noticed as I flicked on the light was Dad, staring back at me from the bookcase. His surprised smile caught forever. I headed for the bottle opener, dropping the carrier bag that contained the rest of the evening's sustenance onto the sofa. I unlocked my phone screen, flicked through a few apps and stuffed it back into my pocket.

No sooner had my fingers left the phone’s casing when it chirped and I pounced on it like a predator on prey.


Mum

Sue said the suit looks good. Your sister is pleased.

‘Well, that’s the main thing, isn’t it Dad?’ I said to the photo frame, taking a swig. ‘Sis is happy. Mum’s happy.’

I closed Mum’s message and opened a new one, making several false starts, deleting and starting over, then let my fingers hover over the send button. I exhaled with a ‘gaah’ and sent the message.


Luke

Hey, Livvy. Hope your day has been better than mine! Fancy a drink tomorrow?


I waited a few minutes. I turned on the TV, wiped dried egg of the hob and moved the magnets around on the fridge – anything to keep my fingers busy. My mind drifted to what Livvy could be doing. Was she at home? Was there a problem with her phone? I eventually gave in and checked. Livvy was offline, but she’d read the message. My stomach suddenly felt heavy. This is the way it always went. The same tired pattern. The Curse. I clicked my phone on to silent and stuffed it down between the cushions of the sofa, then opened another bottle.

***

It had been ten years since The Curse started. Since my last serious relationship. Marta swept into my life like a hurricane and left the way she came. Originally from the States, Marta had traded the heat and style of Miami beach, for the grey drizzle of Camden town. Her parents owned a pharmaceutical company and had helped Marta see the world. It was our Christmas night out and we had hired a boat on the Thames. Marta and two of her friends had ad-libbed their way on board in an attempt to see more of the city.

We dated for six whole months. We spent hours walking around London, exploring forgotten pubs and seeing show after show after show. We danced in Leicester Square at three in the morning and spent rainy days watching tourists get drenched from the window of my flat. With her, I felt seen. Alive.

Marta soon grew distant. She wanted to see the World and her enthusiasm for London was running out. The city never slept, it teemed with opportunity and life, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted more. First she grew sulky. She would shrug her shoulders whenever I asked her what she wanted to do. Then she stopped staying over, choosing instead to take extra shifts at the bar or sleep off a hangover from an impromptu night out with friends. I’d booked a table at a quirky new restaurant – I thought it would show her that London had more to give, that I had more to give. I wanted her to move in and I wanted to take the next step. I waited for an hour for her to turn up, frantically calling her phone and getting more and more anxious with each unanswered call. I imagined her locked in an embrace with some suave office-bloke. I thought about the way her manager looked at her the last time we’d met. About the way every man looked at her. And many women. Before I knew it, I was in the bar across from my apartment, the night becoming a blur of neon and whiskey.

But I do remember the next morning. The throbbing headache. The unfamiliar lump beneath the duvet next to me. The keys in the door. Marta’s call from below. The wide, mascara-smudged eyes of the woman as she fumbled for her clothes, my heart racing. The hopelessness in Marta’s face, as she stood in the doorway. That broken look in her eyes. The feeling of shame.

I don’t even remember the woman’s name. But I’ll always remember what my actions that night cost me. A week later, I heard Marta was going to Australia. I never saw her again.

And that’s how The Curse began. Over the years I’ve gone through every app and dating site you can name and it’s the same old story. We match, we talk, they disappear. Yes, I might get a date. But my dates have a terrible habit of meeting the love of their life immediately after they meet me.

***

‘Pathetic,’ I said, rolling the empty bottle between my fingers. ‘But it’s true. We all make mistakes, don’t we? but I seem to still be paying for mine.’

It had been 13 minutes since I last checked my phone. Livvy was still yet to respond. My phone had only chirped to alert me to a message I still hadn’t opened from Penny, the woman I’d met at that awful speed dating night last month. I’d forced myself to go, under the illusion that it would at least be a laugh, but the night failed to produce the spark the posters promised. I was one of six men, each of us smelling strongly of a different cologne, who carouselled around a series of booths each promising to contain the woman of our dreams. The first two women seemed more interested in their phones than me, the third had an unhealthy interest in the Twilight Saga and the fourth and fifth were old enough to be my mother....or even her mother. The final girl, Penny, was sweet enough. She was a teacher from Chelsea, and we spent a pleasant few minutes discussing the new builds in the area and our love for cats (Truthfully, I’m allergic). I took her number, but nothing really ignited. I reluctantly opened the message, scanned through the babbling, tentative invite for a drink and closed the phone. I’d get back to her later. Before I could stop myself, my fingers had swiped back to Livvy’s messages. Still no response.

‘I just don’t understand people,’ I slurred. ‘She asked me for a drink. Why wouldn’t she respond?’ I rubbed at my temples and ran my hands through my hair. ‘Another night just sitting around waiting for someone to call.’ I slouched backwards into the cushions and gazed up at the ceiling. ‘My mates are AWOL. Simon has got the kids to worry about and Bluey’s always away with work. Even Mum’s too obsessed with the wedding. No one is going to call, are they Dad?’

He stared back at me from his frame, which I'd propped up against the takeaway boxes on the coffee table. I thought about the day that photo was taken. The sun through the trees. The smell of the earth and leaves and pinecones. I wiped at my eyes and felt my wrists pulling towards my phone, like puppets on the end of a wire. Still no response. I closed my eyes.

***

A couple of hours later, I was woken by the sounds of a hen party passing beneath my window. Graham Norton had finished interviewing A-listers and a solemn news presenter was talking about the latest political scandal. I stumbled to the doorway, shrugging my coat on over my shoulders, and headed downstairs.

The News Stop was empty except for the owner, Stanek, a thick-set, broad-shouldered muscle man who, I’m sure, never had any trouble in the dating department. Stanek was re-filling the bottled drinks shelf, his t-shirt, which was clearly a size too small, riding up as he reached the top shelf, giving a peak at a sculpted torso. Livvy would answer his messages, I thought. I caught my reflection in the sliding fridge door. I looked even paler than usual. A ghost trapped in amongst the Lucozades.

‘Evening,’ Stanek nodded, stepping towards the serving area and resting on the counter, his shoulder muscles clenching. ‘Heavy night for you?’

‘Sort of,’ I said, grabbing a four pack of lager, a large bag of nachos and a sharing bar of chocolate.

‘You should be out partying. London is life and soul, no?’

‘London is the home of the lonely.’

Stanek studied me for a moment, his spade-like hands grasped around the pack of cans. ‘Bad date? You want to talk?’

‘I think I’m being ignored,’ I huffed, my shame and pride dissolved by the beer I'd already drank.

‘Dating is tough,’ Stanek nodded. ‘In London, dating is toughest. Too many people. Always on the lookout for what comes next. Waiting for a better offer. But it never comes.’

‘Tell me about it,’ I had a sudden flush of embarrassment and I realised I didn’t want to spend my night pouring my heart out to a newsagent I was only just on first name terms with because it was written on a badge. My eye tingled and I rubbed at it. ‘Just those please, Stanek.’

He began to scan my shopping but his advice continued, undeterred. ‘You shouldn’t take it personally. In my experience, it’s never rational. When the talking stops, it’s rarely your fault. They meet someone else. They decide dating isn’t for them at that moment. Or they realise the idea was more exciting than the reality. It’s not you, just how it is. Life just gets in the way. And in London there’s a lot of life around.’

I politely nodded my thanks, tapped my bank card to the keypad and left before my eyes rolled completely out of my head at the thought of Stanek being ignored. I was pretty certain Stanek and his abs were never short of attention.

I took the long route home, melting back into the crowds, enjoying being around people for just a few moments before I went back to the flat. A woman was laughing into her screen at a video call. A bunch of lads whistled and jeered at each other. Friends chatted. No one saw me.

I don’t know why I decided to go past the The Flying Horse, but I spotted them immediately. Leaning into one another, shouting over the conversations surrounding them. They nodded and laughed and made grand gestures as they told their stories over their pints. Simon and Bluey. I thought about going in, but I didn’t have the energy. And my eye still tingled. I crept down a side street and was soon back at my front door. It took a few attempts to get the key in the lock, the alcohol clearly doing its job. But there was something different. The lock didn’t look right. Almost too much door.

When I finally slumped into the apartment, cracking open a can and toasting the photo of Dad, I took out my phone and completed my usual evening ritual of scrolling through MatchMe and typing out a new message to Livvy.


Luke

I hope you find what you’re looking for.

My skin prickled as I hit send. Usually, I’d delete my bitter ramblings before self-pity could completely take over. But something about tonight made me hit the send button. And now the familiar shame sank in. What was I thinking? Livvy never owed me a date. She didn’t owe me a text back. And now I’d made myself look childish and sulky. I sighed and contemplated deleting Livvy’s number. Blocking her altogether. Then I could forget this whole embarrassing situation. That’s if she didn’t block me first.

I flicked back to my messages. No tweets. No insta likes. My last eight texts from Mum had been about the wedding. The meme I’d sent to Bluey had gone unanswered. I sighed and looked at my Dad’s photo. It had been three years but it never got easier. But the photo looked different – the edges of the frame blurred and wavering. My eye still irritated. Scowling, I stomped to the bathroom, pressed my hands around the sink and leant forward into the mirror. My skin flushed cold. It wasn’t my eye that was the problem. It was my nose. It wasn’t there. It couldn’t be possible, but I could see the towel rack behind me! My breath caught in my chest. The space where my nose no longer was began to grow, spreading across my face like spilled ink. My skin lightened, my irises turned milky then transparent, and I began to fade away.



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