They meet on the 18th of May by the bandstand on the pier. Two metres lie between them, and it’s blustery out by the water, so they have to raise their voices to be heard.
‘How are you, then?’ Cillian calls into the wind.
‘I’m actually fine, Cillian.’
Ava can see discomfort in the curvature of his mouth and the furrow of his brow. It’s the same discomfort that creased his face when she last saw him, almost two months ago now.
She’d decided to pay him a surprise visit.
The following morning, he texted her: We good? Her head hurt when she saw the text, but that might have been because of the wine still coursing through her veins: she’d drunk almost a whole bottle the previous night, on Zoom with Grace.
‘Forget him,’ Grace had said through the screen.
But it’s hard to forget someone you’ve spent two years with.
Ava didn’t reply to Cillian’s first text. Instead she did yoga, baked a Victoria sponge, and cleaned out all the cupboards in the kitchen. At three o’clock, her phone buzzed for a second time: Can we at least talk?
‘No.’ Ava said aloud, and put the phone down. She stood still for a minute in the silence, resisting compulsion. Then she read it again.
‘When you want to call him, call me instead,’ Grace had suggested on Zoom, so that was what Ava did.
‘I think he feels bad.’
‘Why? Has he been trying to call?’
There was the sound of squabbling, and then ‘shush, would you?’ on the end of the line. Grace’s exasperation was palpable.
‘I’ll let you go,’ Ava said.
‘I’m sorry. Call me if you need anything.’
Ava managed not to look at her phone for the rest of the day by binge-watching Netflix and drinking more wine. The following morning, Taoiseach Leo stood behind a lectern and announced unprecedented restrictions for an unprecedented emergency.
So much was ‘unprecedented’ these days. One thing that wasn’t: Cillian’s carry on.
The last time had been in February, when a friend saw him lip-locked with a woman at a bar in town. Ava’s resolve had remained firm for three days. On the fourth day, Cillian had asked if he could come over and Ava had broken and let him. He barely made it through the door before his mouth was hot against hers, his fingers teasing at the hem of her skirt. Afterwards he’d scrolled on his phone while she lay naked on top of the duvet.
‘I thought we were casual anyway?’ he said when he left half an hour later.
Ava had nodded mutely.
‘So don’t be getting hysterical every time I enjoy myself.’
After Leo’s announcement, Ava sat on her balcony drinking milky coffee beneath a steely sky. A couple walked hand-in-hand on the street below, their chatter well-worn and comfortable. The road was free of cars, and she could hear the birds singing to welcome the morning. She stayed there until twelve o’clock, listening to a world that hadn’t yet ended. Then she descaled the kettle, watered the pot plants, and did some more yoga. The weeks stretched emptily ahead.
‘Maybe I should move back home for a while,’ she suggested to her mother that evening on the phone. ‘I could do all the grocery shopping.’
‘Oh pet, there’s no need – the neighbours have us covered. But you’re so good to be worrying.’
It was too hard to explain that she wasn’t really worrying, or at least not about her parents. After the call, she walked slowly around her tight apartment. In the bedroom she spent five minutes examining a spot of discolouration on the wall. In the bathroom she stared at her reflection, a sullen face framed by limp, mousy hair.
The next day Cillian tried to call, and Ava managed to reject it. She put her phone inside her wardrobe and sat down to read at the kitchen table. But her mind kept replaying the sight of his flushed face at the front door two nights prior, and the floating voice from within, a woman who wasn’t Ava: ‘who’s there, Cillian?’
Rarely had she caught him red-handed. Once she’d seen him groping someone at a club, but she’d turned around and left so that she didn’t have to see any more. Mostly the news had trickled through from friends and colleagues. Her face smarted every time she had to explain: ‘we’re not exclusive’.
She gave up on reading after an hour at the kitchen table, and sat back in front of the TV. Ten minutes later her phone rang again from inside her wardrobe, and she went and retrieved it.
‘Can I come over?’ Cillian asked as soon as she picked up, his voice tinged with familiar supplication.
‘You can’t. It’s against the law.’
‘There’s no law passed, Ava, it’s just guidance. I can come now.’
She was surprised by her own firmness: normally he would find a way to inveigle her with sweet words. But now she had a global pandemic on her side.
He called her seven more times in the next four days, and each time Ava picked up and said: ‘you can’t’. Then he stopped calling.
Nine days into lockdown, Ava took her first walk. The evening was unseasonably warm, and golden sunlight slanted down across the houses. She wandered along the seafront toward Sandycove, stopping just short of the tiny stretch of sand. Sapphire and turquoise swam into one another, intermingled and became azure, then rose and twisted to break into white crests and curl away. The tide painted golden mirrors onto the shore. They caught the setting sun for a moment, then faded. A woman passed and said ‘good evening’; they were the first words Ava had heard from a real life person in over a week.
Her life had never been more restricted, but standing there before the expanse of water, Ava felt freer than she had in years.
The feeling didn’t last long. As the days dragged by and the sky returned to grey, the empty hours began to stretch themselves so wide that time became meaningless. Loneliness bloomed inside of Ava, and crushed her newfound sense of liberation. At the supermarket, when the cashier barked at her to step behind the marked line, she felt she might cry.
By mid-April, her pixelated Zoom self had begun to merge with her flesh-and-blood self. A few times a day she would find her thumb hovering over Cillian’s name on her phone screen. She was spending less time recalling his infidelity – is it cheating if you never promised not to? – and more time recalling their early days, before that question had to be asked.
Their first date had been to the theatre. Cillian had been charming, intelligent, worldly. He’d also seemed interested in her as a person; or if not, his opinions were more interesting than hers anyway.
She didn’t bring up exclusivity until they’d been dating for almost a year.
‘I’ve always taken more of a free agent approach to relationships,’ Cillian had said in response. ‘The expectation of monogamy can be so suffocating, don’t you think?’
Ava had nodded sagely, but a thousand tiny shards cut into her heart.
As an end to quarantine became an increasingly remote prospect, Grace and Ava began to catch up regularly over Zoom. Ava would complain about isolation, and Grace would argue that solitude was better than living with two toddlers.
‘I’ll tell you one thing I’ve found helpful,’ said Grace one week. ‘Online dating. It reminds me there’s a world beyond this house.’
So Ava followed suit. She bravely downloaded Tinder, and spent a full day curating her profile. Once it went live she was surprised to find that the matches came quick and fast – and after a few days, she agreed to her first Zoom date.
She curled her hair, contoured her cheekbones, coloured her lips a dark red and pursed them in the mirror. It was the first time she had felt pretty in weeks.
‘All dressed up and nowhere to go,’ she said aloud to her reflection, but her words were belied by the butterflies which filled her stomach.
That first date was an awkward mess: the audio was raggedy and the picture distorted. The second one went better, technologically-speaking, but the man on the screen seemed to talk an awful lot about his ‘incredible’ lockdown productivity levels.
‘Give it time,’ Grace counselled, ‘the first few are never great.’
So Ava kept going, and as May arrived, time sped up. She became discerning. She learned to say ‘no’ to people she didn’t want to see again. Her thumb hovered over Cillian’s name less and less, and then not at all.
One evening she arranged a date with someone she’d been texting for about a week. It was warm, so she Zoomed on the balcony. The setting sun made her skin look radiant and dewy, and she spent five minutes before the call adjusting her webcam to catch it.
He was sitting outside too, and they raised their glasses to the camera for a virtual cheers. They chatted for three hours. He listened to her, really listened.
When he asked Ava what she was doing to fill the time she said ‘not much’, but then he gave her space to expand – and she ended up telling him that she was enjoying taking walks, that she’d started an online cooking course, and that she was doing a lot of yoga.
He’d never tried yoga, but he’d be up for giving it a go. Could she send him a link to a good tutorial?
She actually sent him a string of links, and after that they kept texting. They agreed to meet at the end of May.
One morning, as Ava was unloading groceries from her car, her neighbour struck up a conversation from the other side of the street: ‘It’s good to hear there’ll be an end to all this, eh?’
He was a gruff, older man, who also lived alone, and Ava could see that he was struggling – despite his best efforts to hide it. She asked him whether he’d join her for a cup of tea, and they sat on their respective balconies to converse across the empty space. They only talked about the weather and the falling death rate, but it was enough; enough for Ava to know that she was real. Embedded in their words were quiet prayers for companionship.
They met again the following morning, and before long it had become their custom to sit together every day and share both silence and thoughts.
‘My wife’s in a care home,’ he said one morning. ‘Yesterday they’d their first COVID death.’
‘That must be difficult,’ Ava said, and he grunted, looked away. She could see the tenderness in his eyes – and the fear. It sat with her, the depth of that love.
The following day she told him that for the past two years she’d been seeing a man who didn’t believe in monogamy. He ran his hand down his face and rubbed the back of his neck before replying.
‘Doesn’t sound like a nice lad to me, Ava.’
‘No. No, I suppose he’s not, really.’
Shall we meet on the 18th? Cillian had texted when Leo announced the reopening plan, and after an hour of indecision, Ava had replied: Ok.
But now, standing by the bandstand, Cillian is a sad echo of an abandoned past. She knows what life is like without him. She knows what life is like completely alone.
He leans forward, and Ava knows that he wants to touch her, cajole her into forgiveness. But he can’t: there’s a two-metre bubble around her. And anyway, time has put enough distance between them that she can finally see him clearly.
‘Is that it, then?’ Cillian calls across at her.
‘That’s it, Cillian,’ Ava says. And she turns and walks back down the pier.