Rent and Bills by Emma Flynn: Benedict Kiely Short Story Competition winner
A young woman reflects on the price she pays for her relationship with a wealthy man
Emma Flynn: is currently writing her first novel and a collection of short stories
Saturday morning, he used his phone voice to tell the woman in the only other apartment on his floor that she was contaminating the recycling bins with non-recyclable material. I retreated further into the apartment, hoping to distance myself by lying down on the made bed, trying to force myself to get back into a dream I have every so often. Seconds after finally finding my way back into the familiar scene, my body slackened, ready to give way to at least a nap, he is back in the apartment, snapping down the phone, too frustrated to remember to use his phone voice, talking at who I assume is the building manager.
Like last time, we agreed I would stay until Sunday, a length of time that now seemed to yawn far into the unforeseeable future. Every time I checked my phone it seemed as if time had stopped. I didn’t know what to do when we weren’t having sex, which was happening a lot less this time. Current tally is two. Punctual as the changing hours, morning, night, perhaps noon. I didn’t know what it was he expected from the situation. He leaned one hand on the kitchen island and clicked and scrolled on his laptop with the other. The kitchen opened out into a broad living room with ceiling to floor windows at the end. The white-gray city outside blurred and shifted in the rain. Neither of us said anything.
I still felt odd in his house, as if I shouldn’t move when he goes out of the room in case he comes back in and thinks I’m up to something. It was barely afternoon. There were so many hours left. I went for a shower to think, going through every possible process from exfoliation to moisturising.
I totally agree, he says, to whoever is on the other end of the phone, it has to be within the next few weeks, at least.
I take back up my place on the sofa, hair still wet, scrolling through my phone, trying to look simultaneously occupied and invisible.
If it takes longer, I’m not sure if they’ll be interested, he says, walking toward me, half-smiling. I click my phone locked. He stands in front of me and puts my chin in his hand, tilting my head to look up at him.
I can call in on Thursday and talk about a realistic timeline, he says, the half-smile gone. He looks at me and squeezes my jaw a little. There’s a paramedic seriousness to the way he holds my gaze.
He hangs up and pushes his phone into his back pocket. Get dressed, we’re going out, he says. A line I imagined him perfecting and editing for years in his head, inspired by an era of first and second dates to see rom-coms in the Savoy.
He drives in that way I’ve noticed many men do, sitting at a slight tilt back in the seat, legs spread a little, one arm on the steering wheel and the other on the gearstick, grinning slightly, as if driving this car down this road at this point in time is a very important task that’s been entrusted to him. It’s uncanny sometimes to notice him or what he’s doing. I realise I’ve met or seen other versions of this person many times before.
I’ll order wine, he says.
The restaurant is not unlike others he has brought me to. No prices on the menu. Quail. Pollock. Okra. Ceviche. Braised. Salt-baked. Sparsely decorated, industrial Scandinavian, underpaid staff, one vegetarian option, an obsession with protein. The lighting has the whole room mopped in a dark purpley red.
Mark, the man at the table beside us says: Mark, who let you in here. He laughs and leans over a bit so he is closer to our table. Aftershave.
Mark, he says again, I haven’t seen you in months, how the fuck are you?
Same old, same old. He closes the menu. I’m working with Dennis lately, he never mentioned you were over.
Just this weekend, I’m afraid.
I wondered if the waiter would suggest joining our tables together. Or if Mark or this man would do that thing where they signal the waiter to send a bottle of wine to the other table. From the gentleman, the waiter would say, resting an ice bucket in front of us. If either of those actions are things people do outside films.
The proximity of sitting next to someone he knows adds a new level of performance to what is already panning out to be something of a one man show. I’ve noticed there are two settings with him, either we go somewhere like this, where he can spend a few hours talking in his phone voice, giving me the opportunity to try exquisite, expensive food and wine, explaining the difference in flavour profiles between dry cured and salt cured. Or else we go somewhere I think he assumes I like, a noun-named bar with jars instead of glasses, in parts of the city that he only knows through possible development portfolios. Go on, he might as well say, act natural.
He doesn’t introduce the man to me, or me to him, and likewise with the woman the man is with, who doesn’t acknowledge either of us. I didn’t know that was an option. When the waiter takes our orders, his arrival marks a natural break in the conversation. An acceptable place to go back to not knowing each other.
He drives home even though he’s had a few. Rubbing his hands together and breathing hot air on them as we wait at a red light. Silence. Dublin at the start of December is lacquered sentimental through foggy windows and frissons of lights. I hate that I fall for its advertorial glow every single year. I hate that it sends me searching for some tender nugget of nostalgia to conjure up and muse on. That it’s just a combination of lack of daylight and excess fairy-lights that does this to me in the first place.
With one hand, he holds my wrists together above my head. I could feel the sweat on my back against the bed sheet. In a few moments it was over and he had rolled off of me and the space between us in the bed was very big again.
He is, I have noticed, into tracking. He’s into data created by his own body, that he can bring up in a few swipes on his phone. Or laptop or tablet or basically any of his devices because they automatically sync every four hours. I’m pretty sure his car knows how many stairs he’s climbed on any given day. Both the activity creating the data and the data itself seem to be equally important. It is a sense of great pride that his movements, his input, spin off infinite generations of graphs and plot points to be neatly digested each night before he falls asleep. From him I have learned that there are optimal ways to be inside your own body and mind, though my own seems to reject all attempts at amelioration.
So I’m thinking about Napoli, he says, from his position on the floor. The foam roller bristles against the carpet as he engages in myofascial release. It’s beautiful this time of year and I need to get out of Dublin, destress.
I am still unsure, after a month of this, whether it is genuine naivety, ignorance, or the fact he just doesn’t care, that leads him to think I can drop everything and go to ‘Napoli’. I cannot afford any sort of spontaneity. I cannot afford to get a taxi instead of the bus.
He logs the spinach and garlic spaghetti as we eat it.
Are you staying tonight? He asks.
I’m leaving early in the morning-
Yeah, sure, I can head home after.
No, he says, serious again, what I meant was, I’m leaving early in the morning, but if you want to stay here for a few days, you can. You can have a key.
He wants the intimacy of a relationship but without ceding control, or having to actually think or care about the other person. Giving me a key to his apartment is throwing a curveball into how I understand our situation. I try to remain neutral; I can’t process this right now, so I won’t.
I wonder does he have an image in his head of me waiting by the front door, whining until I hear him coming down the hall, the roll of the suitcase on the tiles sending me into spasmy jumps. Or do I just cease to exist when he’s not around me. Go on sleep mode or something, then spring back to life as soon as I hear his key in the door. Reanimated for morning sex and to listen to him talk about the wealth he created while he was gone. I am the eternal waiting nude.
He left before I was awake and the house was warm and quiet when I eventually got up. On the kitchen island there were two keys and a fob on a thin ring. The lack of interruption, lack of second hand noise from other people’s lives, was something I didn’t know was avoidable.
It felt odd to be away from home for so long, like I was avoiding something. I needed to go back to my own life for a while, needed to wash my clothes and trim my nails.
At the house there was nobody home. The radiators were all turned on and the windows were open and you could feel the individual channels of heat rising in each room before slipping into the murk outside. I wanted to cook, to make a mess and have something to show for my efforts, as if having a kitchen to clean after cooking is enough proof that I exist and live. Or that I exist and live here, rather than his. But the oil spattered filth of it makes me tired. I nearly forget the whole point of it all and stand in the kitchen, bag still on my shoulder, and transfer my rent, waiting for the bubbling ellipsis on my banking app to confirm the payment. I leave, for his, purely because the keys in my bag feel like some sort of inevitable conclusion and it’s easier to follow it than to come up with another plan.
Elaine, the cleaner, is in the kitchen and I’m startled by the presence of someone else. I’ve never been fully alone here before. She’s making a list at the kitchen island of things that need to be bought for the next time. The place smells like hot vacuum air.
Watch the floor, she says, turning around, still wet.
The view from the balcony is limited by the gloom of December, a thick cloudy sky and intermittent showers. She spreads a plastic bag on the wooden chair before sitting down. Smart.
Is he gone for long?
Nah, I say, passing her the joint, wondering what she thinks about me for being here.
Must be weird here without him?
I don’t mind it, to be honest.
Yeah. My house is chaotic.
Silence ebbs and flows between drags. I want to skip along a bit, past the small talk, but before I gather myself she’s stubbing out the butt against the underside of the balcony.
You’ll let him know about the list, yeah?
I’m too ashamed to admit that it’s me that will go to the supermarket and pick up what she needs. From this height the city feels manageable, as if living here is no more complicated than taking the same photo of a sunrise or a sunset every so often. I sit there for a while and look into the windows of the flats across the road. Nobody is up to much, everyone seems to be under the same winter pull towards the ground. Slow and methodical movements until it’s time to sleep.
He texts after eleven, says he’s waiting for his suitcase at the carousel. Wait up for me, he says. Like a good girl.
I cringe at his messages, usually when I’ve been away from him for a while, when I’ve had time to get perspective. Like a good girl. Reads like the script to some terrible porn.
Yet, here I am, washing my hair and picking out something to wear.
Emma Flynn’s fiction, non-fiction and reviews have appeared in Banshee, Vox, The Cardiff Review, The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times and others. She was awarded second place in the 2020 Colm Toibín Short Story Award, longlisted for the 2019 Berlin International Short Story Award and shortlisted for the 2018 New Irish Writing in Germany Award. She is currently writing her first novel and a collection of short stories.
Competition judge, Colin Barrett, said: In Rent and Bills, a moody story about a soured but persisting love affair, the author writes that the protagonist says of their controlling, remote lover: “There’s a paramedic seriousness to the way he holds my gaze.” It is a stylish and composed story filigreed with such telling details. While the affair itself is stagnating, dragging down the protagonist like quicksand, the prose depicting their predicament is nimble and evocative.