‘Hello, and welcome back to Mealtimes With Milly. I make new videos every day, so you’ll never need to eat alone.’
I have been living, sleeping and eating alone for six months. There is nothing old about this city, and yet here I am, afraid of ghosts. I found Milly after eight lonely weeks, or one hundred and sixty-eight solitary mealtimes, in a quiet moment of serendipity, or perhaps divine intervention, that meant nothing at the time and now means everything.
‘I hope you’ve had a scrumptious day. Tonight, I’m eating cheese ramen from my favourite restaurant.’ Milly has a lot of favourite restaurants, but I phone this one all the same. My order follows hers exactly: one large bowl of cheese ramen with a soft-boiled egg and a side of beef rice. I have been a vegetarian all my life, but Milly wouldn’t like that.
‘Mmm, it smells good.’ She is wearing a yellow bow today, presumably to compliment the cheese. This tells me that she has planned her dinner with some foresight, which, besides her company, is more than I can say for myself. But my niggling sense of inadequacy is eased away by her first mouthfuls, the steaming soup, the moans she makes when it passes her lips. ‘Whoops,’ she says, laughing as a noodle trails against her chin like a slug. My mouth waters in anticipation.
Like everything that changes you, Milly made caves of my assumptions and called for re-evaluation. If someone else had been in my position when she pulled me from the pit, I might have laughed, or made a face like Milly did when she ate a plate full of lemons.
‘It’s so good to see you again. How’s your day been?’
There is a pause, in which I answer: ‘It’s been okay. I mean—it’s better now.’
‘Thank you so much for stopping by.’
‘You know I always do. How’s your day been, Milly?’
‘Let’s eat ramen!’ There’s always a slight disconnect in our conversations, but I have grown used to it and find that similar disconnects exist in my daily life. Since Milly, I have learnt to appreciate these gaps as profound moments of intimacy, the space where minds can meet, and I would venture my relationships have improved as a result.
It could be the excitement, or perhaps the knowledge that soon my body will be full, but I need the bathroom. Milly freezes with a spoon hovering seductively over parted lips, her little pink tongue just visible. I try not to go to the bathroom too many times because it spoils the flow of our conversation. Milly doesn’t like spoiled things. Once, she made a bowl of cereal, and the milk came out in large, quivering clumps. Milly screwed up her face, but she still looked perfect like that, like a little wincing doll. ‘It’s disgusting,’ she said—but looking back, if you mute the sound, void the expulsion, the words still look pretty falling from her lips.
When I lock the bathroom door, I often think of my mother. Sometimes I lock it quietly, so the metal barely makes a sound, and I can pretend it isn’t happening. Sometimes I lock it loud, with a flick of the wrist, quickly and with purpose. The door, I know, needs to be locked today, and I accept it. Sometimes I do it without thinking, and these times are the worst. A numb realisation washes over me and my clean hands when I try the handle and realise what I have done.
I don’t think she noticed me locking the door before I moved away. Or if she did, she thought nothing of it. I think that’s part of the problem. It put distance between us that she could not breach without breaking it down, and I am not sure which of us that isolated. The door was frosted glass, so I knew I could get out if it came to that, but I hoped it wouldn’t. There would have been nothing left to break.
When I was at university, a friend of mine liked playing the ‘imagine if’ game.
‘Imagine if your mother drove over and took you out for lunch,’ she would say.
‘Yes,’ I would reply. ‘Imagine that’.
Imagine if you came home for dinner one night, and there was nothing to eat but soap. Imagine that!
Imagine if all the toothbrushes came to life and became very malicious and started swearing. Would people still put them in their mouths? Imagine that!
Imagine if you locked the bathroom door and stayed inside for two whole days until your mother called the police. Imagine that!
My friend says I don’t understand the game very well.
When mother did come to visit, she banged hard on the bathroom door. If I think about it now, I can see the shape of her body in the glass. But she is already a spectre, here from another time, travelled all this way to haunt me.
Perhaps she did notice me locking the door, after all.
My doorbell rings, and I spring into action. The elevator pings seven times, counting the floors, and even though it is a logical impossibility, I hope it will be Milly waiting for me when the doors open. I have tried to smile like she does a few times, and I practice now in the mirror; but my face has none of her warmth, and I am suddenly aware of my skeleton. The delivery man is loitering outside, checking his watch, and I apologise as he hands me the bag.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says.
‘I hope you weren’t waiting for long. I’m having dinner with a friend, you see.’
‘The restaurant sends its compliments.’
‘It’s a pretty night, don’t you think?’ You can almost see the stars over the city’s spectral haze. I notice the moon is shaded yellow, so I add, as Milly might: ‘The moon looks like a giant bowl of ramen!’ The man looks at me suspiciously and, thanking me again, returns to his bike. I return to the lift and let the scent fill it up like steam in a sauna.
I had similar conversational success during a phone call that happened with my mother last Tuesday.
‘Hello, mother,’ I said to the air. Her voice arrived back, and I thought about how far we can reach without actually touching. She said: ‘Hello? Hello, darling,’ and then she asked how I am. Luckily, I was prepared. I have practiced my answer with a giant smile every night for two months. I know it is good because I’ve seen its reflection. ‘I’m very well, thank you. How are you?’ Milly always cares when she asks how I am, so I would never disappoint her with the truth.
My mother was well. She had decided to open a little shop in the village. That’s nice, I said. I think there’s something very sad about her hypothetically small shop, but I didn’t tell her that. The shop is pretty in my head, the kind of place I would like to go myself, but she looks wrong dressed in black among the pastel pinks and blues. I wonder what she’ll sell. I wonder if she’ll still buy me birthday presents or if she’ll just pluck one off the shelf. I wonder if I’ll like it anyway.
‘Maybe Milly and I will visit when it opens,’ I said, but I know that’s ridiculous. I have no plans to go home.
My mother said that would be nice, but I don’t really know Milly. It upsets me when she says this, because although four months isn’t long, I feel like I know her quite well.
‘Do you love her?’ she said.
‘She’s my best friend.’
‘Do you love me?’
‘You’re my mother.’
Imagine if I forgot to lock the door, and she tried the handle. Imagine that!
Imagine if she moved too fast and slipped on soap and hit her head. Imagine that!
Imagine if the insistent water forced her throat and found her lungs. Imagine that! Imagine that!
‘Maybe you could sell soap in the shop,’ I said. It’s a coincidence, really, because that night Milly told me she was opening a shop too.
‘It’s online, so you can visit it wherever you are.’ She has always been so thoughtful. I don’t think her shop will be anything like my mother’s. If it sells soap, maybe it will smell of her. I don’t think that’s out of the question. Mother said she was going to visit soon, so it would be nice to have a few Milly bars on hand.
When I return to my flat, ramen in hand, I am comforted by the glow from my laptop, which is gathering quietly in the darkness. The walk from the front door to the light switch, however short, always fills me with dread.
‘You’re home from a long day at work,’ says a familiar voice.
‘Hi Milly,’ I say, placing the hot plastic bags onto the table. Her voice is sweet, and I feel it stirring my cells. ‘It has been a long day.’
‘You are very special. Well done.’ I am suddenly filled with a deep uncertainty. I look closely at my laptop on the table.
‘You’re here,’ I say.
‘It’s so nice of you to drop by and see me.’
‘It’s my home. I have to drop by.’
‘Grab your food and get comfy.’
‘I’ll get you a bowl too,’ I say. But she is already eating. I walk to the kitchen, leaving her behind me. In my mind, I search for her shadow. ‘Would you like a drink?’
‘I love soup,’ she says. I empty a tin of tomato soup into a mug and place it in the microwave. I realise too late that it is decorated with her face. It turns smiling pirouettes in the blistering heat, and I am reminded of the day I moved away, when it was hot and disorientating, and I had no one. It was unclear whether she wanted the soup in place of a drink. I hope that by placing it in the mug she has the best of both worlds. I adapt quickly, you see.
I return and place the soup in front of her. She is paler than I remember, like her skin is made of porcelain. She has two red bows in her hair, and as she crouches over her dinner she looks feline, predatory almost. All she needs are whiskers, and she could be a beckoning cat.
She looks at me then. I feel it pierce my heart. She has always been so familiar. ‘Won’t you come home?’ she says. ‘Won’t you, please?’
‘I am home.’ I can smell something strong, like eggs, but I can’t see what she’s eating.
‘Please visit my shop.’
‘I will.’ I unwrap my food and break apart the wooden chopsticks. I can use them as weapons if it comes to that, I think. With hot mouths that taste the same, she is so close that we are almost touching.
When it is done, I place the containers back in the bag. It is like they were never there, and the thought of them arriving so recently and then being disposed of makes me want to cry. ‘I want to cry,’ I say.
‘I don’t like that,’ she replies.
I stand up and walk to the bathroom. Her face screws up as she watches me go, like it is full of lemons. I close the door, flick the lock. Only then do I realise my mouth is swollen with soup. I spit it into the sink, but it has burned through my cheeks, and they are red.
‘What are you doing?’ comes a voice from outside. I turn to the door just in time to see a silhouette advancing towards the frosted glass.
Leonie Rowland has just completed an MA in Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. She was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award in October 2019 and the Reflex Fiction Spring Award in March 2020. Her academic writing has recently been published in the Dark Arts Journal.
Image via AdobeStock