Watching Love Island
Updated: May 3, 2018
The pub was an old music hall from the 19th century. It had survived two world wars and was now, in the final act of its life, a Wetherspoon’s pub. Mel liked the faded, expansive glamour of the place. She liked that it was cheap.
Darren began by placing two drinks on the table: a house white wine for himself and a beer for Mel. He looked down at the carpet and then up at Mel and then down at the carpet again. He braced himself.
“Did you know that the carpet of every Wetherspoon’s reflects something about the surrounding area?” he had said, with an unnerving brightness.
Mel shook her head. Darren was trying very hard to ease her in to something terrible with small talk, she could tell. Something about it felt eerie. He was like an autobot, programmed to make human conversation by a team of tech geeks.
“I didn’t know that”, said Mel, smiling.
“I think we should just be friends”, said Darren. It was a seamless transition.
Mel played with her straw. This interaction had gone very wrong. She had enough friends. She did not need any more. She had friends for every occasion, every mood, every shade of her personality. She wanted to be someone’s girlfriend. She wanted to have someone to sleep with, to stroke, to suck, to show off on social media to the people she went to school with.
“I just wanted to be upfront about this. I didn’t want to lead you along”.
Mel nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I understand completely”, she said.
But she wanted to scream, “please, Darren. Lead me along. Lead me wherever you like.”
After this revelation, there was nowhere for the conversation to go. They meandered along for a couple of minutes, before making their excuses and going their separate ways. Mel actually needed to walk the same way as Darren but she waited for five minutes in an underpass so she wouldn’t have to run into him. She was annoyed. It was her favourite pub in the whole of the borough and it was ruined forever.
Mel decided to walk all the way home through the rain for an hour, even though it was an easy ten-minute tube ride. She felt like doing something dramatic and unreasonable. She played every love song she knew on her phone. She had hoped the long journey would help her come to some deep understanding or a sense of peace. But she just felt damp.
She stopped at Boots and bought a pregnancy test, the most dramatic item she could see. She had no symptoms of pregnancy but she wanted to pretend, for a few moments, she was on an American teen drama. She chose the third most expensive and brandished it in the queue so other people would see and feel sorry for her even though she did not look especially young to get pregnant.
Mel was in a perverse kind of mood. She wanted to wallow in her sadness. She wanted to wear only black. She wanted her friends to message each other about how worried they were about her and how she’d been wandering around London in the rain and how she hadn’t been herself lately and she’d been losing so much weight. She went to the off licence and bought a bottle of whiskey even though she hated whiskey. She decided, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t going to eat dinner.
She had only known Darren for four and a half weeks but she felt things like ‘jilted’ and ‘scorned’, words she had only read about before but suddenly understood. She thought about all the bits of herself she didn’t like - her bulky calves, her disappointing breasts, the mangy scar on her navel - and how her body had failed her. Mel had seen Darren and decided on him. But Darren had seen Mel, in all her wholeness, and decided he never wanted to see her again. Whatever words he had said, Mel had heard only one thing: Darren was happy to spend time with her so long as it didn’t end in sex.
When Mel got home, she peed on the expensive plastic stick and left it on the kitchen counter, which she knew was a hideous thing for a person to do but, because she was in a perverse kind of mood, she did it anyway. She turned on Love Island. She thought about how beautiful all the girls were in a uniform sort of way. She wondered if any of them had been told by a man they loved that he just wanted to be their friend. She watched how pert their breasts were in a bikini. She looked at their shiny, bronzed skin. She decided it was unlikely.
The key turned in the lock and Mel’s flatmate Veronica walked in, carrying two bags-for-life from Tesco. Veronica was the only person who Mel had no doubt would commit to the same bag-for-life for the entirety of her lifespan. She was Mel’s brother’s long-term girlfriend. They had lived in the same house for two weeks now since Mel’s brother had gone to Chicago for work. Mel had become very good at avoiding her. So good, in fact, that the prospect of seeing her had escalated beyond annoying to a great trauma. Mel had become an expert on the minutiae of Veronica’s weekly schedule so they would never have to be in the front room at the same time. This was the first time Mel had laid eyes on Veronica in six days.
Mel kept reminding herself that Veronica was a very nice person really, everyone always said it, but she still loathed her with a malice that surprised herself. Veronica smiled a shy hello and began to unpack her Tesco bags with care and efficiency. Mel made a mental list of the positives and negatives about Veronica in her head.
GOOD THINGS ABOUT VERONICA: She always took her dishes out of the drying rack. She once fished Mel’s tampon applicator out of the toilet bowl. She baked red velvet cookies sometimes and - even though Mel snarled that baking was “giving up on life” - it was quite nice to come home to the smell of baked cookies every now and then. She did not drink, take drugs, or stay up past 10pm.
BAD THINGS ABOUT VERONICA: If she had a sense of humour, Mel hadn’t seen it yet. She had grown up without a television set, so Mel had to explain pop culture references in exhausting detail. Veronica was the kind of person who wrote, “looks like a fun time! Xx” on Facebook pictures. Veronica had never said an ironic thing. She did not drink, take drugs, or stay up past 10pm.
“Mel,” Veronica said, her voice loaded and diplomatic.
“Yup”, croaked Mel, not bothering to turn her head.
“I was just wondering – don’t worry if you don’t want to or anything – but ever since I started living here, I’ve taken out the bins and the recycling, and it would be good if – maybe, just once – you could take it out? Don’t worry if you don’t have time or anything, it’s just…”
Mel breathed in. Veronica was being unreasonable and cruel. Today of all days.
“Yeah fine”, she said.
Mel sat and aggressively watched Love Island, very much hoping Veronica would go away.
“What is this?” Veronica squeaked. She wanted to talk.
“Love Island”, Mel replied blankly.
“I don’t really get these sort of shows.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mel, her voice flat.
“Why would anyone want to be filmed for all this time? Fighting with people in bikinis?”
Veronica looked at Mel, desperation in her eyes, as though she really needed to know the answer.
“Uh – I don’t really know, Veronica. Maybe they want to be famous.”
Veronica nodded, as though mentally making a note.
Mel’s mother rolled her eyes about Veronica. At dinner, once, she had called Veronica a ‘safe pair of hands’, thinking she was being subtle in her suggestion that her son’s girlfriend was homely and a bit simple. Mel’s brother Oscar became very defensive, barking that “Veronica gets very good results”, as he stabbed a piece of chicken with his fork.
Mel didn’t think about Veronica very much. But here she was, somehow, on the worst day of Mel’s life, nervously putting a tuft of hair behind her ear and trying to get to grips with Love Island, squinting at the corner TV.
“So they all get coupled up with each other?”
“Yeah, I think so”.
“And they’re actually together? In a romantic way? They’re in love?”
Mel nodded, tears plunging into her eyes.
“They all look really, really nice”, said Veronica, with a detached awe. Veronica didn’t understand that you weren’t supposed to say things like that about people on reality TV.
Mel looked at Veronica, with her First Class Honours Degree from Leeds University and her earnest features, and thought how she always seemed so impossibly sorted in life, safe in the destiny of becoming someone’s capable National Trust wife. She had followed Oscar, Mel’s brother, to North London after their graduation because he’d found a teaching job there, in the hope that she would ‘find something to do there too’. She hadn’t. But she didn’t really mind, happy to potter about on the arm of a mediocre man. On all of her Facebook profile pictures, Oscar stood right beside her, as though she didn’t matter without him. They both wore the same kind of anorak and their cheeks were the same shade of puce.
“Yeah they do look nice I suppose,” Mel agreed lazily.
Veronica nodded again. She set herself to tidying up the kitchen, folding the bags-for-life and putting them in their specially assigned drawer. She spotted the pregnancy test on the counter and froze. She picked it up with a kitchen towel and she looked over at Mel.
“You – er – I think you left this on the side, it’s -”
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Mel stood up and took it from Veronica. She breathed in. The air felt stretched. She looked down.
Mel had woken up this morning an empowered, cosmopolitan career woman who drank cocktails with the girls and went to outdoor cinema events. Now, here she was, a few hours later, jilted and damp and – impossibly, horribly – pregnant, like someone in Love It magazine or in an X Factor sob story.
Mel felt like the world was too large, and all the pressures and possibilities were crowding around her and pressing her into a little box. Sometimes she tried to imagine all the different versions of her in the heads of everyone she knew and it felt stressful, like trying to imagine infinity or the edges of the universe. She wanted to go into her bedroom and never come out, so Darren’s baby would swell up and burst out of her and they would live together, all cooped up like that film Room, until one or both of them were dead.
“Are you okay?” Veronica asked weakly.
Mel smiled and nodded. She wanted to stab Veronica, twice, in the stomach. She hated her certainty. She hated her blind faith that she was doing the right thing. She hated her lack of ambition. In Mel, there was this hot sort of discomfort. She was always twisting and turning herself into knots. But Veronica was always so serene, so measured, so still.
Mel sat down and pressed play on the TV. The girls on Love Island had to decide which of the boys had the best body while blindfolded. Mel liked watching it. They all behaved in the same predictable, outrageous ways every night. She liked the equilibrium of it: each was paired with a corresponding partner of the opposite sex. In the end, Chris was chosen as the winner. Mel thought this was a deserved victory and Veronica agreed. During an ad break, Veronica turned to Mel and said, “this is the best thing that has ever happened to you,” with some kind of fervent hope in her voice that Mel had never heard from her before.
Mel felt confused. It didn’t seem like the best thing that had ever happened to her. It all felt like a terrible mistake that someone was going to come along and undo.
Mel poured a glass of whiskey for Veronica, and passed it towards her. Veronica looked at it for a couple of moments as though taking the decision to drink very seriously. Eventually, Veronica took one small sip, and then another, then another.
“I might go and live with Darren”, said Mel, for some reason. “He’s got two massive bedrooms and a walk-in wardrobe. And one of those expensive Sky TV packages. So.”
Veronica looked at her and nodded a couple of times.
Mel poured a big glass of whiskey. She drank all of it, fast, even though it was the worst thing she had ever tasted and she was pregnant. She was in a perverse kind of mood. She looked straight ahead and tried very hard to watch the TV and not think about anything at all.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by India Boxall