Updated: Sep 13, 2021
Conner and Mo
This is what not knowing your luck looks like: a spacious living/dining room in a Victorian house in North London, on a Friday night, lit by a vintage standing lamp belonging to an absurdly generous absentee landlord—a man who believes that everyone should get what they want, at least some of the time. On an oak-panelled dining table, there’s a pad of A2 paper with what could equally be topographical sketches or patterns of fungal expansion— which a woman in her early 20s with a Mediterranean tan, in a crop top and low-slung jeans (it’s the middle of June), who is laying out plates and cutlery, deftly lifts and transfers to one of the benches lining the curved windows that face out onto a small front garden with a fig tree (whose branches closest to the window are bare).
Lydia pauses, takes in the scene: is this what getting to know people looks like? Yes, it is. Has she gone a little overboard here? No.
In the middle of the table, she places a large wooden bowl of salad and dressings. A wooden motherfucking bowl. It’s all about first impressions. Solange is playing through Alexa on the mantelpiece; part of what she’s yet to title her dinner party playlist. There’s an M&S cheesecake in the fridge and strawberries and prosecco. She turns off the heat on two tagines, one meat, one veggie, ladles them into glazed earthenware dishes and transfers them to the table. Someone’s coming downstairs. Standing directly under the dining room lights and staring out at the unlit hallway, she feels like an actor on a stage.
It's important to Lydia that this doesn’t become another house with “atmosphere.” The A-word means living like a spider, on a web of tripwires. It means immeasurable pettiness and white noise machines. Lydia dreams of throwing out her white noise machine.
As far as house shares go, Lydia’s gone from bad to worse. It’s not like she has a choice. Her mother lives alone in a studio flat. She tried a studio once: no. She doesn’t cope well with being left on her own. That, and the thin walls her budget would cover. Perhaps she could manage in a vacuum, anywhere where she wouldn’t hear conversations that make her feel excluded. These feelings of exclusion were the focus of her therapy sessions before her therapist died in an accident involving a photocopier. The only alternative, cohabiting with friends, is no longer an option for her at twenty-eight. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, and they’re all in studios or on the property ladder.
What matters is what she’s learned: that atmospheric conditions tend to stabilise at an early stage in the life cycle of a house, without anyone having noticed. By the time someone checks a barometer, it’s usually too late. In her experience, there are few things that seem less possible than trying to re-establish a pattern of small talk where said pattern has withered and died.
And so, here she is, running the experiment again. Thinking that, this time, through sheer force of will, she will bond the members of this house together. Films and TV have taught her that food is a good binding agent.
Moeiz shuffles into the light, head down. Looks up and takes in the scene reluctantly, biting his lower lip.
‘Hi there! How’s it going?’ Lydia asks, light beaming from the plates and from her face, shining with sweat and steam. He shrugs.
‘Shit, I didn’t know you was going to so much trouble. Now I feel bad.’
‘Yeah, but. I already ate.’
‘Your face!’ Quick thigh slap then, soberly, ‘sorry, sorry, sorry.’
She scowls theatrically.
‘Come give me a hand with the drinks.’
‘You thought I was serious?’
‘Ice goes in there.’
‘Do I seem like that kind of guy?’
He gives her a look like she’s questioned his honour. He’s like a righteous schoolboy, she thinks. She must avoid this playfulness becoming actual flirtation. She must also try to avoid seeming to take his jokes too seriously. She has sometimes wondered whether ‘must’ features as heavily in other people’s thoughts as it does in hers.
Two days ago, Moeiz had helped her move in, having only arrived himself five days previous. In the boxes he’d so eagerly carried - an enthusiasm fuelled by the industrial-scale pack of energy drinks she spotted in the kitchen - there were broken plates and picture frames, which she’d wrapped in newspaper and binned without comment. Show her a friendship without collateral damage.
Perched on the sideboard behind her, Moeiz flexes his fingers. His hands are always on the move; they look agitated when unoccupied. He cracks his knuckles one by one, then presses the palms hard on his thighs and moves them slowly up and down, rocking his whole body back and forth, turning his head this way and that. This is a good thing he’s got here; he must try not to ruin it.
Over ‘Junie’, they hear someone come through the front door and go upstairs. They wait for him in the dining room. Lydia sits down for five seconds and then jumps up and rearranges things on the table, until they’re back in their original positions. She does so in swift, darting movements, and under cover of small talk, for fear of drawing attention to the bitten skin around her fingernails.
‘Sure, I cooked all the time at my old place,’ she says. ‘That was the vibe: not living with strangers. It just sort of happened. And so, we keep in touch still. Which is cool. Is that normal? Do you still hang out with yours?’
‘You look like a magician,’ Moeiz says, and then refills his glass. It’s meant as a compliment but when he says it, she stops and sits on her hands. Magicians deceive.
Conner had moved in the previous evening, while Moeiz was working. Lydia postponed her shopping to wait for him, so she could help with his belongings. He was later than she’d imagined, and she was already anxious about being able to source all the ingredients for two types of tagines at such short notice. It was not, of course, possible to make something else—something simpler - instead; she had committed to making tagines in the house WhatsApp and did not want to give them the impression of being a flake.
When Conner eventually arrived, there was nothing for her to carry—the van was coming the next day. All he had was a rucksack in which he soon realised he’d neglected to pack basic things like his phone charger and toothbrush. He stared into it, mystified, as if someone else had packed it. So, they went to the supermarket together and he carried her shopping back.
Conner was very sweet. He had piercings - a nose ring, which reminded her of a bull, a black ring through the left nostril, a silver stud through his earlobe and two small rings higher up the ear, which, in the supermarket strip lighting, were multicoloured, like splashes of gasoline on the pavement. His hoodie was the colour of instant custard and looked unworn, and he wore a black cap backwards. In line at the self-service, she pictured the two of them—if she’d been someone else - enacting anarchy in the aisles, shoplifting or scrawling obscenities and nihilistic aphorisms on cereals with marker pens or careening into pyramids of kitchen roll in trollies. He seemed younger than she could remember ever having been, but also gave her an excited feeling that she could learn it from him.
Conner walks in and Moeiz laughs. She isn’t sure why.
‘I have that exact sweater,’ he says, by way of an explanation. The two of them shake hands stiffly and sit down. Something unexplained hangs in the air between the three of them, somewhere above the tumbler of cucumber water.
She makes small talk while serving but their responses feel strangely muted. When she sits down, it’s as if they’ve both partly withdrawn into themselves. Moeiz mumbles wisecracks into his plate, which she pretends to hear and find amusing.
‘What?’ asks Conner each time he does this, but Moeiz only shakes his head and shovels in more food.
Conner is leaning forward, perched tensely on the edge of his chair. Every mouthful he takes looks like an effort. Tonight, he does not look like a destructor of kitchen roll pyramids but a store assistant too afraid to confront the adolescents messing his store.
Conner keeps his head turned towards Lydia and a forced jollity spews out of him. He questions her about her life in exhaustive detail, to the point where she can’t take his nervous laughter any longer and tries unsuccessfully to make eye contact with Moeiz.
Moeiz appears to be entirely absorbed in eating and drinking and avoiding the possibility of speaking. He nods without looking up whenever his name is mentioned.
Lydia doesn’t understand what’s happening.
Three weekends ago. A hotel near an airport. A three-day young-people-in-business leaders-of-tomorrow motivational-conference type thing. Who knows. A lot of young people, mostly men in suits, Young Conservative types, lots of back-slapping and playing at being daddy.
Conner, in a starched white shirt, black waiter’s vest and bowtie (sans piercings), serving oily smiles and coffee, shuttling trays of prissy sandwiches from the kitchen to the tables around the edge of the function room, passing the time by pretending to slip powdered glass into the urns and picturing the more odious of these specimens on the floor, convulsing.
He gets these gigs at short notice through an agency. It’s easy money if you can stomach boredom, which he can’t, so he has to flirt with the clients. He camps up, to get attention, to shatter the grinding monotony. Dishes out winks left, right and centre.
‘Watch yourself, honey! Now don’t go spilling coffee on that adorable suit!’
Many of them do spill their coffee, in their rush to get away from him, which he counts as small victories.
It’s a ten-hour shift but he spends less than half of it actually working. Morning break, lunch, afternoon coffee, evening meal, and the rest of the time’s his own. He smokes a lot of cigarettes and drinks a lot of coffee, reserving the last, super-strength cup at the bottom of the urn for himself. He thought he’d be sneaking off for quickies with hotel guests every five minutes, but no. It’s an expensive hotel, and something in him—a socioeconomic gag reflex—rebels at the idea of fucking an older version of these chiselled dickwads. It would mean they had won, somehow. He browses through attendees on the apps and gets turned on by the idea of switching to Alpha Male jackhammer mode in one of the cubicles - watching the shock on their face yield to fear and shame of their own enjoyment.
‘Who’s my lil’ bitch, huh? You my lil’ bitch? Gonna pay your taxes now, bitch?’
But their profiles are so fucking bland, so anodyne, like extras in a chewing-gum advert or extras in their own sex lives. Conner’s other job is as a social media copywriter. He gets people’s attention for a living. The previous autumn, he’d had his appendix out, and the office he worked for got a designer called Eline to cover him for a few weeks, rather than hire an experienced writer. In their preternatural blandness, these profiles remind him of Eline’s tweets.
Need a boost? We’ve got you covered with great-tasting coffee every day of the week.
Try our coffee today! You know it’s the right thing to do!
Mental health problems affect one in four of us, yet people feel ashamed and worthless because of this. So why not get a coffee today?
Conner was clearing away the starters when his phone vibrated several times in quick succession. Someone was horny, impatient, and baiting him with various body parts. With perfect composure, he lifted and stacked plates of leftover lobster mousse. There was a pleasure equal to sex in making whoever it was wait—Are you finished with these, sir? Shall I take these, madam?—and in knowing there was a stream of pure want waiting for him in his pocket.
He was looking for RIGHT NOW. There was some flexibility on the definition of RIGHT NOW.
He was passing through on his bike, with a delivery, so they’d have to be quick.
He said he was DL-4-DL (DL = The Down Low). Was Conner discrete [sic]?
He was Black, early 20s, clean-shaven, buzz cut.
He cracked his knuckles while he followed Conner into the cubicle.
He seemed nervous until the cubicle door shut, and then it was straight to business.
He stayed dressed throughout but his pictures were sexy as hell.
His cock was big but not too big, smooth and beautiful and responsive to all of Conner’s tricks.
He arrived rock hard and came in five minutes.
He said nothing afterwards except ‘laters’ when he jumped on his bike.
He said his name was Naz.
Moeiz empties his second plate while theirs are still half-full, and then starts devouring bread rolls to keep his mouth full.
Lydia wonders if she’s living with one racist and one homophobe? (Or just one racist? Or just one homophobe?) Or is it just her—is it something about her presence that kills the mood? Is it boring to eat tagines when you’re twenty-three, are they embarrassed on her behalf? And if she wasn’t here, would they both be cracking jokes in a trendy bar, and playing beer pong, and forgetting she existed?
Before she cries, she goes to the bathroom.
Nothing is said for a minute. Moeiz stops eating bread and allows himself to feel sickly full. Joni Mitchell is singing and although Conner doesn’t recognise the song, he is prepared to bet that whatever needs to be said between them is in the lyrics.
Then he decides to be the adult.
‘Well, this is weird.’ Conner says it with nervous laughter, like an offering. Moeiz’s right leg is pumping away under the table. He’s rubbing his stomach.
‘Shall we talk about this, or…?’
‘Sure.’ He leans back so that his eyes are trained on the ceiling.
‘Ok.’ Conner makes himself count to five before adding, with audible patience, ‘when?’
‘Dunno. I’m kinda busy.’
‘Uh-huh, uh-huh.’ Mo’s high-vis uniform. His cyclist’s musk. The way Conner whimpered—shit, he can hear himself doing it. ‘When are you next free?’
Moeiz lets out a groan, which might be indigestion or something else. He lowers his gaze from the ceiling to the table, and his eyes dart off to the side, as if there is a great deal of labour involved in answering this question.
‘Next Sunday, maybe.’ Today is Sunday.
‘Ok. Sounds good.’ This feels to Conner like progress—minute, achingly slow progress. ‘Let’s not make this any weirder than it is already.’
‘Peace’ would have been an opportune moment for Lydia to re-enter. If this were a sitcom, she’d have waltzed in and mistaken the tail-end of their conversation for her cue. (‘Make what any weirder?’) Then Moeiz and Conner would have exchanged looks of panic (which, for some reason, she wouldn’t be able to see), before spinning her some off-the-cuff BS (‘Weirder? Nooo, I said wider…’), leading, ultimately, to entertaining consequences.
But Lydia doesn’t come back for another five minutes, because that’s how long it takes for her to stand before the mirror and force the tears welling in her eyes back into their ducts. It’s a surprisingly hard and time-consuming business, reversing a decision to cry; she did, briefly, consider getting it all out in one go, to save time, but she also has a strong feeling that she would be crying about nothing. Instead, she’s decided to tell them how she is feeling.
She treads downstairs quietly, then hangs back to hear: the entirety of ‘Gypsy’ by Fleetwood Mac; a riffle of papers; someone getting up and going into the kitchen for ice, then returning to their seat; a cough; a throat-clearing; a yawn; a fork clattering on the floor and being returned to a plate. What she sees, on entering, is that Moeiz has moved his chair over to the window with its back to Conner and is there flicking through an A2 pad. Conner is sat sideways on his chair, facing away from the doorway where she’s standing, with his left arm hanging over the back and his attention entirely absorbed in something in his right hand, presumably his phone.
‘Can I just say—Alexa, stop.’
They turn round.
‘Can I just say.’ She hates being confrontational, has to inhale deeply first. ‘You’re making me sad. Goodnight.’
She goes upstairs to bed, repeating ‘goodnight’ when they call her name. The guilt keeps both men where they are for a while. Mo stares at the blank page the pad fell open on when she came in. Conner leaves his phone untouched on the table, his Instagram feed looping through a 10-second Simpsons clip.
Soberly, without speaking or making eye contact, they clear away the table. They cover the bowls of salad and bread with cling film and put them in the fridge. They scrape the tagine into Tupperware boxes and put these on the shelf below, leaving the earthenware dishes to soak in the sink. They put the dressings and seasonings where they think they would go. Conner washes the plates and while he smokes in the back garden, only the glow of his cigarette visible from the kitchen window, Moeiz dries and puts them away. When Moeiz isn’t looking, Conner finishes the leftover prosecco.
When they’re done cleaning up, Conner collapses into an armchair with his eyes closed.
‘We should talk,’ he says, eventually, slurring slightly. ‘I feel terrible.’
Moeiz is already upstairs in his room, smoking a joint to help him sleep.