‘There’s a weight on her chest. Some heavy, muffled heartache’

Fighting Words 2020: The Definition of Lonely, a story about loneliness and friendship, by Nellie Warren

'She really spent a full hour and a bit trying not to think about loneliness, only to google the definition on her phone.' Photograph: iStock

'She really spent a full hour and a bit trying not to think about loneliness, only to google the definition on her phone.' Photograph: iStock


Name: Nellie Warren
Age: 17
School: Stratford College, Rathgar, Dublin 6

The Definition of Lonely

Nellie Warren
Nellie Warren

Oh, Lily realises, face first in her pillow at one in the morning. I’m lonely.

It’s not jarring. In no way is it a shock to her. Maybe she’s known it all along, and only just attached the word. Again, she adds to her thought, to finish it off with finesse. Lily has been lonely before; it’s just been a while since she’s felt it so clearly and obviously.

She turns her head to lie it sideways on the pillow, wondering if loneliness is something she can fall asleep to. It’s not like Lily has been sleeping well of late anyway. Her mind has kept wandering into strange territories – not the usual fantasy world where she meets an idol or kisses her crush. But sadder, darker places – situations where she would start arguments with her friends, or just lament to them about something semi-sad from her childhood.

“You know,” she had said to them in one of these imaginary situations – a sleepover she had conjured up, with three of her friends who all looked on expectantly. “It’s weird, but I don’t think I’ve ever been someone’s best friend. When I was a kid, I used to say I had lots of best friends, but that’s just the thing kids without close friends would say. If I’ve ever liked someone enough to want them to be my best friend – they didn’t see me in the same way. I’ve never been that to someone, in any way.”

Of course, the way Lily speaks it in her mind is not as easy as it would flow if she ever did this in real life. Not that she would. The story playing in her head would always cut out after her speech for a reason – she didn’t know, or rather want to think about what her friends’ reactions would be. She could never tell something like that, even if she wanted to.

Time passes. Lily shifts, turns, tries to not think about the fact that she’s lonely. She starts to wonder about the definition of the word she’s attached to herself and opens her eyes to stare at her phone. It’s half-buried under her pillow, ready to wake her with an alarm at 10am. Lily knows that if she grabs it now, she’ll be back to square one and have to try and drift off all over again.

But it’s not like she’s even sleepy. Lily grabs the phone and rolls over on to her back, letting the blueish-tinged light shine on to her face. Even with the brightness all the way down, it makes her squint. She opens Google, and types in “lonely definition”. Lily almost laughs to herself, because damn. If anyone opens her browsing history and expects something intriguing, they’re just gonna end up sad.

“Sad because one has no friends or company.”

Lily blinks at the definition, surprised by the bluntness of it, though she supposes definitions have to be blunt. Am I sad? she wonders. Not really. And I have friends, and company. Maybe I’m not lonely, then.

But there’s a weight on her chest. Some heavy, muffled heartache. Maybe that’s sadness – but she doesn’t feel sad. It’s just like she knows and has accepted it.

Lily’s eyes wander to the top of her phone screen, only to find it’s past 2am. She really spent a full hour and a bit trying not to think about loneliness, only to google the definition on her phone? She could laugh.

She keeps the phone held above her face. Absent-mindedly, she clicks the home button and taps the Instagram app. It opens to a photo of her cousin looking over some gorgeous sea. Lily double-taps without thought and then swipes on to her messages. No notifications, but the first thing that pops up is her conversation with Amelia.

Lily taps on to it without thought. It wasn’t even a conversation, really. Lily sent a photo of Hozier she saw on her feed, and Amelia liked it and replied with the heart-eyes emoji. Lily doesn’t even like Hozier, but just because Amelia does, she keeps getting posts about him on her explore page. And Lily sends them to Amelia, because of course she does.

Lily sees that Amelia’s online, inexplicably. In a flash of an unthinking moment, Lily messages her:

what are u doing awake?

It doesn’t take long for Amelia to respond. Lily taps off so that she doesn’t seem desperate, like she was waiting for the response, even though she is.

Ur awake too, hypocrite!

Lily responds.

it wasn’t an accusation, I’m curious!!!

Okayy lol

Idk I was just out with Ian

Ian, her boyfriend. Lovely guy, awful hair.

until two?? are ur parents furious lol

Noooo not until now, I came in like an hour ago.

They were still mad tho lol

What about u?

Having a crisis.

Lily doesn’t even comprehend what she’s typing until she’s sent the message. She considers deleting it quickly, but seconds later Amelia’s already seen it. She swallows, doesn’t panic, even though she can’t just say that to Amelia. Lily has learnt that even if she wants to be Amelia’s close friend – or best friend, like she’s a child in the playground – that Amelia doesn’t see her that way. She knows that. That’s fine.

Amelia is typing. She spends a while typing. For a moment, Lily thinks that maybe she’s going to respond with sympathy – engage a conversation. She imagines for a moment, the response that arrives reading: Oh I’m sorry. Wanna talk?

She waits, and Amelia responds.

Oh, RIP lol.

She waits again, but Amelia is not typing. Lily waits more, hopefulness falling away back to nothing. She starts to reply.

should probably go to sleep now tbh

night dude

She knows she won’t sleep. Amelia is typing.


Lily doesn’t shut off her phone immediately – she tortures herself, lets herself dwell on the chain of unsuccessful conversation for a moment longer. Then she switches it off, puts it away. Lily turns on to her front, head back in her pillow. For a moment she suffocates in it, but then turns on to her side. Forever unsatisfied.