Over twenty-five per cent of commuters, that’s one in four, carry faecal matter on their hands. Think about it. Those commuters spread all that filth among themselves, they shake hands with colleagues and friends, they go to supermarkets and handle fruit and vegetables that you may later buy, take home, and consume. This is why I am agitated. This is why I cannot settle down to write.
It isn’t something normal thirty-year-old women obsess about, and it’s always worse when I’m waiting for Ade to come back with the shopping. I pace the room listening to the low hum of the air filters sanitising the air and worry about germs attacking Ade from all sides.
I go back to my laptop and try to concentrate on the letter. It comes from a reader in Huddersfield. He thinks that his girlfriend has given him chlamydia but he is unsure whether to broach the subject because he might have contracted it during a stag party in Amsterdam. He asks, Dear Isabelle, what should I do?
Dear Concerned of Huddersfield, each of us carries on our bodies a thousand species of bacteria. A handbag might carry up to ten thousand bacteria each square inch; a passionate kiss can prompt the exchange of over five million bacteria. So what are a few extra bacteria between friends? We are all mired in filth.
Even though I’ve scrubbed my hands under scalding water, each tap of my fingertips on the keyboard transfers unseen residue. A computer keyboard can harbour four hundred times more bacteria than a toilet seat. Think about it.
I have to stop typing because I feel I’m going to retch. In any case, Concerned of Huddersfield doesn’t fear the unseen enemy; his primary concern is whether his girlfriend will notice the discharge, and whether this might introduce a note of discord into the harmony of their relationship.
I lean back in the chair and try to focus on what practical advice I can offer. Living as disconnected from the world as I do, it’s easy to see people in the real world like soldier ants, struggling to haul crumbs over the obstacle-laden terrain of life. This thought of crumb-carrying ants brings Ade back to mind, struggling with carrier bags full of my germ-ridden shopping.
Okay, Isabelle Granger is bat-shit crazy. Example: I’m here in Tesco’s measuring onions. Seriously. She won’t have onions bigger than twenty-six centimetres round. And I have to clean every item with bleach wipes before I take them into her apartment. God knows what her chef has to deal with. I can’t tell because her staff never meet. That’s another rule. I’ve never seen or spoken to her chef or housekeeper. We leave notes and shopping lists, and that’s it. Before I finish each day, I have to count the housekeeper’s wages, seal the cash in an envelope, and put it on a side table. Why she pays the housekeeper daily and the rest of us monthly, who knows?
Anyway, I’m heading to the next aisle when I spot my friend Jaye. I hate being seen. Shopping’s not really a guy-thing.
‘Hey, Ade,’ he says, ‘you shopping for that bat-shit crazy boss of yours?’
‘Don’t call her that.’
‘What, like it’s only you who can say it?’
Okay, you’re thinking I shouldn’t have told Jaye about Ms Granger’s craziness, right? But something that weird, it’s going to come up in conversation.
Jaye gives me a sly look. ‘You getting friendly with her then?’
‘Strictly professional. I can’t stop to chit-chat. I got to get a ton more stuff.’
‘I’m not stopping you.’ He shrugs. ‘Later.’
We bump knuckles. Ms Granger would approve—less surface contact.
Next stop is the household cleaning aisle. You ask me, the germs left her apartment long ago. Talking of which, that place is massive, seriously massive. Ms Granger sits there typing away behind an inch-thick glass wall that separates a corridor for staff from her living areas. There’s a sliding glass door between the two sides that never slides.
The way I heard it, her mum—one of the richest bitches in London—offered her a lifetime of sessions with a world famous shrink, or as much money as she needed to move out and set up a place of her own. That’s mums for you. I’m talking about real mums, biological mums. I can’t fault my adoptive mum. Anyway, Ms Granger chose a place of her own instead of the shrink.
But here’s the craziest thing. Ms Granger writes an agony column for some women’s magazine. You’re talking about a single woman of thirty, a good-looking woman, living her life behind glass. And she dishes out relationship advice. Is that mental or what? Being part of Ms Granger’s world, things just get weird and weirder.
The correct term for my primary phobia is mysophobia, although most people say germophobe. Of course, that’s only part of it. Believe me, I do know how ridiculous it seems. Thinking back, I’d say it began when I was bullied at school. After my parents divorced, and after the incident I prefer not to talk about, it grew progressively worse. On my eighteenth birthday, my mother addressed the problem in the only way she knew how.
‘Isabelle, darling, you have a blank cheque,’ she said. ‘Ultimately, it’s your father’s money, so I encourage you to spend it with as little restraint as you can muster.’
‘What did dad say? Did he wish me happy birthday?’
‘Oh, probably.’ She gave a casual flick of her gloved hand. ‘I haven’t paid him any attention since nineteen-eighty-six.’
As always, my mother was on her way out of the door to somewhere. I could hear the Daimler’s engine idling outside, belching pollutants into the summer afternoon. Perhaps it was a lunch date she had at Fortnum’s, or a shopping trip to Bond Street. I’d hoped my father might speak to me personally.
‘Well, don’t look so disappointed.’ My mother arched an immaculate eyebrow. ‘I am not your father’s keeper, not any more.’
I chose the apartment, because therapy—lying on a couch befouled by the grievances of multimillionaires—no, I couldn’t. Sometimes I wonder how different life might have been if I could have been cured. Perhaps I might have been the girlfriend of Concerned of Huddersfield.
Dear Concerned of Huddersfield, when you are alone in bed at night, if you ever are, do you hug your pillow and imagine loving someone who could see you at your weakest and only love you more for it?
The buzz of the intercom jolts me. I hit Alt–Tab on my laptop and a picture of Ade waiting at the ground floor entrance flashes up on the screen. The CCTV distorts his face, accentuating his features, making him look cartoonish. I love that.
I buzz him in. The concierge downstairs, Mr Cosgrove, will stop Ade and ask him his business even though Ade has visited me daily for nearly two years. Mr Cosgrove is an officious busybody puffed up with his status as guardian of the lobby. Ideal for the job, I suppose. Mother once slapped him hard across the face, hard enough to send his lower dentures skittering across the waxed floor. He received a substantial salary increase that year.
I get up, slip the cover off the mirror that hangs on my living room wall, and do my best to straighten my hair and smooth my lips together to distribute the remaining lipstick evenly. For all these little touches, I look like a girl who has suffered a makeover from a wronged friend.
Hauling the shopping bags through the apartment door I call out, ‘Just me, Ms Granger. Yeah, I’ve disinfected everything.’
I could get away with not bothering. It’s not like she’s going to know, right? Only time she sees half this stuff is when it’s on a disposable dinner plate. One time, I might have skipped the routine. Now, I like to do what I can to make her world less scary.
I lug the bags along the corridor. The plastic handles stretch thin, like piano wire cutting my fingers. With the left-side wall being glass, sometimes it throws you. You don’t know whether you’re on the inside looking out or outside looking in. Ms Granger’s standing on the other side of the glass like someone impersonating Hannibal Lecter. Except Lecter probably doesn’t list eight different brands of maxi pads in his shopping.
She says, ‘Did you get everything?’
‘Take a look.’ I stagger past, towards the kitchen. ‘I got the whole freaking store here.’
She laughs. We worked out the boundaries early on. We can share jokes. She asked me to call her Isabelle, but I have to keep a certain distance. I put the bags in the kitchen and come back through to see her. She’s looking sadder than normal.
I say, ‘So what’s up?’
‘Oh, nothing.’ She turns away and goes to her desk. ‘You know, just people and their problems.’
‘Okay, shoot. What you got? Someone been cheating on her husband?’
‘I can’t tell you that,’ she says. Her shocked face makes me laugh. ‘It would be betraying a confidence.’
‘Like writing to a national magazine about your private life is keeping things confidential?’
She shakes her head and sighs. ‘The whole idea of relationships, families, friendships—life is so complicated.’
Too true. Try being put up for adoption two months after you’re brought to a foreign country. When you’re just old enough to remember but too young to understand and all you got is your first name. Try growing up thinking what to say to your real mum if you ever find her again. And when you do find her, all she can do is cry, and all you can keep asking her is, ‘why, why, why?’
Look, I’m not into self-pity. Life is sweet. Seriously. I’m just saying she’s right—it’s complicated. It takes every kind of bravery.
Ms Granger says, ‘Did you know, Ade, there are more germs on your body than there are people in America?’
‘I’m cool with that.’ I head back to the kitchen. ‘They know I’m president.’
I watch Ade slink back into the kitchen. He has a swagger in the way he walks, you know, a natural confidence. I shouldn’t have mentioned the germs. I can tell it makes him uncomfortable.
I listen to the clatter of pans and the occasional profanity as he puts the shopping away in the kitchen. I like it. I like having him in the apartment, taking up some of the empty space with his big ebullient personality. After a while, he saunters back through.
‘Okay, that’s done,’ he says from the other side of the glass.
The recessed microphones and speakers allow us to hear each other clearly, but it isn’t the same as in the flesh, not from what I remember. It’s more like hearing a voice on a long-distance call, disengaged.
Ade says, ‘Anything else you need?’
I want to say, yes, I’d like to talk. Tell me about your life, tell me about your family. Let me tell you about this dream I have where I’m drowning, then I rise up and break the surface into sunlight, and it’s like being born, it’s beautiful.
Instead, I say, ‘No, thank you, Ade. Just the usual with the envelope, please.’
‘Sure,’ he says.
He picks up the envelope from the side table, takes out the money—don’t get me started on the germs carried on currency—and he counts it out.
‘Yep, it’s all there, right on the nose.’
He looks at me and grins . . . that wide, generous grin. Then he runs the gummed flap of the envelope across the moistened tip of his tongue. He seals the flap down with his finger. I can almost feel the grain of the paper under the slide of his touch.
Did I mention that a passionate kiss can prompt the exchange of over five million bacteria? I’m uncertain of the numbers when it comes to sealing envelopes the old-fashioned way. It is an enormous health hazard, I’m sure, and enough to give a germophobe like me a coronary, which probably makes you wonder why I insist upon it.
I’m done for the day, but I hang back, waiting to see if Ms Granger wants to talk. I get that feeling from her sometimes.
I check again. ‘You sure?’
‘Positive. Have a great evening.’
Then she turns and goes back to her desk.
‘Catch you tomorrow,’ I say as I leave.
My mind’s already on stuff I need to do tomorrow as I get to the underground station. It’s a seriously weird kind of job. Used to be just keeping the electrics and IT running. Now it’s a bit of everything. I got no problem with that.
It’s already getting dark and the air is damp, threatening rain. Then it hits me. Shit, I’ve left my house keys in Ms Granger’s kitchen. I can see them, sitting on the worktop by the sink, next to the row of bleach bottles. I do an about-turn and I’m back at the apartment block in five minutes.
I’m getting ready for the hassle of that asshole Cosgrove stopping me, but when I get there, he’s standing in the doorway out of sight of the CCTV, puffing on a cancer stick. He lets me slide by. Gives me a wink, as though it’s some massive favour.
‘I’ll let you off, lad,’ he says, ‘just this once.’
I take the stairs two at a time.
I unlock the apartment door and I’m about to call out that it’s only me when I get a feeling something’s happened. Inside, it’s darker than usual, more shadows. And quiet in a way that does something to your guts. Quiet as that run down church in Kensal Rise where my real mum took me the morning before she gave me up. As I come to the end of the corridor and turn the corner, what I see makes no sense.
The glass partition door is open.
Over by the side table, Isabelle stands silhouetted by the golden glow from the streetlights outside. She hasn’t heard me. Against the light she looks . . . well, fragile is the only word. It’s like me, you, anyone, could break her just by breathing. She’s holding the envelope with the housekeeper’s wages in both hands.
I think about making a sound, coughing, maybe, so she knows she’s not alone. Somehow that feels wrong. Like I’d be interrupting a prayer. I take a step back into the shadows, holding my breath, keeping my distance.
How I’m feeling right now is . . . Have you ever had that feeling when something happens, maybe the smallest thing, and you know it’s going to change everything forever? That’s how I’m feeling. As I watch, Isabelle touches the envelope, the gummed side, to her lips and holds it there.
Her eyes are closed.
I close my eyes, too.
And it’s like I can feel the touch of her lips.
David is a Londoner now living on the rural North East coast near Whitby. He studied Advanced Creative Writing as an undergraduate and his short fiction has featured in a number of online publications and in print. David shares his home with two cats who are his toughest critics.