In November we went for brunch on Aberdeen Street with Ralph, pronounced ‘Rafe’, who’d gone to Balliol with Julian, now worked at his bank, and had an alleged flotilla of Hibernian great-grandparents. (Two, he expanded. One great-grandparent on each side, which meant Éire owed him a whole grandparent, morally.) He’d voted for Brexit to have tighter borders, and was applying for an Irish passport to avoid being stopped at them. Later in the conversation he called himself ‘a PPEist’ who’d been ‘a bit of a Union hack’. Julian said: ‘Ralph, you’re thirty.’
Ralph’s girlfriend Victoria was good at wearing clothes. She was so beautiful I couldn’t see why she was talking to me. Sometimes her eyes said: I don’t know why, either. We talked and talked, mutually baffled as to why such a thing was happening when neither of us thought it should. Ralph watched us and seemed to think: women are good at talking.
‘You’re from Ireland,’ said Victoria, as though for my information. ‘I’ve been to Dublin.’
‘Did you see the Book of Kells?’ I said, hoping she’d say no, since I never had. Of course she had not only seen it, but written an extended essay about it for her degree at St Andrews. Julian disputed her historiography, and she nodded collaboratively as though they were lifting an awkward piece of furniture together from opposite sides. Periodically she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it’s still there, Victoria. It’s not going anywhere. The cow’s dead.
The following week we drank six bottles of rosé with them in a twenties-style speakeasy. Victoria told me in the bathroom that she was cheating on Ralph with a married hedge-fund guy. She said the thing no one told you about affairs was that the administrative challenges were not inconsiderable. Then she asked if I found it weird that Julian claimed we weren’t going out when we clearly were. I said I didn’t. ‘It’s weird,’ she said, authoritatively. She added: ‘Do you fuck?’, which I thought in its own way a remarkable collation of words. She said it with the tone in which one might say, ‘Do you vape?’, another sentence I would never utter. I replied that I did lots of things. ‘I’m sure you do,’ she said. Then: ‘Are those your real eyelashes?’
The Hong Kong winter had set in. I called it that, the Hong Kong winter, because I’d have to renounce my Irish passport if I started counting twenty degrees Celsius as actual winter. In truth, I’d been gone nearly five months and did find it cold.
My bank account was growing now, especially from not paying rent. I rarely spent the money. I preferred to think of it as time I could use later.
On the street where I worked I passed tourists eating street food, plodding in and out of scaffolded buildings to haggle in cheap phone shops. The British ones wore shorts, and the wool-coated locals pretended not to see them. There was a small seasonal window where you could dress for winter. It was no one’s business spoiling it.
Julian said he’d be in Tokyo in December. I wondered why he was telling me. Then he clarified that it wasn’t one of his weekend business trips, but three weeks. I nodded and asked intelligent questions as I separated the rubbish. We’d had dim sum. I took care to rinse the oil off the packaging.
‘What are you doing there?’ I said.
‘Whenever I say you work with money, you’re like, Ava, I’m not a retail banker, I’m an investment banker.’
‘It’s all money ultimately,’ Julian said. ‘The degree of abstraction is what separates me from the nice man you talk to about getting a credit card. And the level of risk.’
‘Please, tell me more about how you love black pointy lines and you hate red pointy lines.’
‘Look, if I could explain my job in a sentence, it wouldn’t pay so well.’
‘Brain surgeons can explain what they do in a sentence,’ I said. ‘They fix brains.’
‘I don’t know how I’ll manage without these observations in Tokyo,’ he said. ‘Keep a diary.’
This exchange had catechised Julian on several points. I’d told him that a) he had a prestigious and well-recompensed job, b) I didn’t, and c) to break the monotony of his status, he liked women with lip; women other men found waspish, and who found those men feeble, but who were quite at home in his living room – or one of them was, there in archetype and not as someone he specifically cared for, her hauteur being something they had in common.
The blowjob, too, proved edifying.
Men, I could do just fine.
As always, I packed for him, throwing in T-shirts in case he’d be required to flaunt his off-duty fashion sense. I showed him the clothes scrunched up like sushi rolls and said I’d earned a new iPhone at least. ‘For sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back with a suitcase of Veblen goods.’ I asked what that meant in English and he said: luxury commodities. They were different to normal goods in that the demand actually went up with the price.
As he talked, I attended partly to what he was saying and partly to questions such as why I blew him when he did things like say he’d be away for three weeks which showed he didn’t need me; whether I packed for him specifically between blowing him and being bought things so I wouldn’t feel him buying me things was directly because I’d blown him; whether, conversely, I did things like pack for him because I was worried he wouldn’t buy me things just because I’d blown him and I’d then be forced to confront how little blowing him meant by the only metric he used to show affection; whether the latter was especially bleak because that meant packing for him was worth more than blowing him and I was honestly not that good at packing; and how on earth I emerged from all this convinced I was the powerful one.
I said: ‘So iPhones are Veblen goods and bread isn’t.’
‘Exactly. Well, bread’s a Giffen good. What will you do while I’m gone? I can look up museums.’
‘I’m not a child. I’ll do that myself.’
‘Can I come with you?’ I said, ironically.
‘I’m busy,’ Julian said, ironically. ‘It wouldn’t be fair on you.’
It’s never fair, I thought – sincerely. If it were fair then you wouldn’t spend so much money on me. The idea came to me fully formed in words before I remembered to be startled by it.
‘I know you don’t want me to go.’
When he said that, I wanted to go to his potentially matrimonial wine rack, choose his jammiest Cabernet Sauvignon, open it tenderly, and empty it over his MacBook. I didn’t. He’d buy a new laptop tomorrow, be pleased with the improved touch bar, and deny to my face that I had done that thing with the wine until a point in some future argument where he suddenly needed evidence I was crazy. None of this would address why his comment had upset me.
‘Ava, are you all right?’ he said.
I despised him. Not wanting him to go was an emotion produced by me, not him. He’d witnessed me having and failing to smother a feeling, and said he’d noticed – and he profited, not me. This showed how public-school boys coat-tailed on stolen labour. He receivedly pronunciated his defalcatory fricatives and he took his time doing it, because he could, because he and his vampire class would live forever off lives leeched in their factories and ultimately everywhere else, too, at – smaller words? – some degree of abstraction. My wanting to cry was a reflection mainly of my social conscience.
He opened the window and lit a cigarette.
‘Let’s talk about something else,’ I said.
Julian concurred. ‘Tokyo?’
‘Sure. Do you know Japanese?
‘Not a word.’
‘Konnichiwa,’ I offered.
‘Great, now I’ve got one word.’
‘It’s actually two. In Japanese. “Konnichi”, and then “wa”.’
‘Ava, are you all right?’
‘Listen, I really do like you quite a lot.’
‘You, too,’ I said. Which made no sense – surely ‘You, too’ meant I thought he also liked himself a lot – but he didn’t mind.
That night I spent longer than usual pretending not to want him in ways that made it obvious I did. It wasn’t as much fun as I usually found it, or as satisfying as I knew slicing a machete through a row of his shirts would be, but I enjoyed the clarity of the exercise. There was something Shakespearean about imperious men going down on you: the mighty have fallen.
When we’d finished I borrowed one of his famous casual jumpers and he told me he liked how my ears stuck out. He said it made me look attentive. I asked did he mean I looked like I had good hearing, and he said no, not that exactly, but it made me seem alert.
‘In Victorian times’, I said, ‘women cut off a lock of hair and gave it to men to keep.’
‘I don’t want your hair.’
‘I’m just describing the practice.’
‘Right. Good description. I still don’t want your hair.’
‘Do you want something else of mine?’
‘I’ve got your texts,’ he said. ‘They probably say more about you than your hair. And I want that jumper back.’
‘I prefer you in a suit,’ I said.
He didn’t sympathise enough with my politics to under stand how embarrassing or personal a confession this was.
The above is an extract from Naoise Dolan’s novel Exciting Times.
Exciting Times has been shortlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.