Julian wasn’t bothered coming out to meet me after work, so I often ended up going straight to his apartment in Mid-Levels at about 9pm. I told him I found this awkward and degrading. Actually I liked taking the outdoor escalator up. I got on at Queen’s Road and passed over hawker stalls on Stanley Street, then the signs—Game & Fun, Happy Massage, King Tailor—and dingy high-rises and enormous windows on Wellington Street. Then came fishy air wafting up from Central Street Market and the old police station stacked with thick white bricks like pencil erasers. The whole thing took twenty minutes. When I reached Julian’s building, I got a visitor card from the lobby and went up to the fiftieth floor.
Inside, his place looked like a showroom, the sort that had been unconvincingly scattered with items that anyone could have owned. His most obviously personal possession was a large grey MacBook Pro. Most days I watched Netflix on it while he ordered something on the phone. When the buzzer rang, he jumped up like a cat upon contact with a hose.
‘Food’s here,’ I’d say. He rarely responded.
I did the washing up. I liked using the giant sink and the dishwasher, though again, I didn’t tell him so. Then he’d pour us wine and we’d talk in the sitting room. The mantlepiece was bare apart from an empty silver picture frame and cream candles that had never been lit. By the window, there was a long brown corner sofa. I’d take my shoes off and lie on it with my feet on the armrest, crossing one leg over the other and alternating them during gaps in the conversation. Julian took the wingback armchair opposite me. The first time I stayed in the guest room was in mid-August when the tropical storm Dianmu hit. After that, he always offered to put me up when midnight approached. Depending on my energy, I accepted or left to get the green minibus back home—the covered escalator only went in one direction, down for morning rush hour or up for the rest of the day.
That was the shape of it, but it didn’t have a name, apart from hanging out, catching up or popping in for a chat, which was, to be fair, the content of what we were doing. He was so stretched for time that I found it at least semi-plausible that he just preferred to meet in his apartment for convenience. Once I asked him whether bankers had time for relationships.
‘Usually not at the junior levels,’ he said. ‘A lot of them just pay for it.’
The way he said ‘it’ made me uneasy, but there wasn’t any point in taking things up with Banker Julian. He was too self-assured to notice when I criticised him. He registered that I’d said something, then continued a parallel conversation.
When he paid for my takeaway, or when he took me to a restaurant, and when in return I spent time with him, I wondered if he saw himself as paying for a milder ‘it’. I liked the idea—my company being worth money. No one else accorded it that value. We sat in high-ceilinged rooms and he said Hang Seng was down and the Shenzhen Composite was up and the Shanghai Composite was flat. It wasn’t like normal friendships, where I worried about whether the other person still liked me. He liked hearing himself think aloud and I reasoned that I was profiting from it, that you never knew when you’d need facts so it was best to collect as many as you could.
When I was a few glasses into the bottle, I told him he was attractive. I said it exactly like that—‘I find you attractive’—to avoid seeming earnest.
‘You’re quite attractive, too,’ he said.
‘I guess that’s why we get along.’
In some moods he told me about markets. In others he’d fire questions at me, only attending to my answers to the extent that they could help him think of follow-up enquiries. Even when I’d already said something, he wanted to hear it again—the two brothers, the brown terraced house in one of Dublin’s drearier suburbs, that I’d taken a year out after school to save up for college. That we got all our groceries from Tesco before Lidl and Aldi opened, and from Lidl and Aldi after Lidl and Aldi opened. That after 2008 I shared my room with my brother Tom so we could rent the other one out to a student. That none of this made us poor and was in fact pretty much what had happened to Ireland as a whole due in no small part to the actions of banks like his. (I did not choose to verbalise all these thoughts.)
He wanted to know whether my accent was posh where I came from. I’d never met an English person who didn’t wonder about that. Most of them wouldn’t ask directly—and he didn’t, he just asked what ‘kind’ of a Dublin accent I had—but they found some way to convey their curiosity. I told him it was a normal Dublin accent. He asked what that meant. I didn’t know enough about British accents to make a comparison.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘what does the posh Dublin accent sound like?’
I tried to do one and he said it sounded American.
He’d ask what I proposed to do with myself when the time came to stop teaching English as a foreign language and get a real job. He was almost paternally adamant that I shouldn’t waste my degree on lowly employers, and even paid convincing lip service to not thinking less of me for not having gone to Oxford. But when it came to which jobs he did consider good enough for me, he was vague. Law was glorified clerking. Consulting was flying to the middle of nowhere so you could piss around with PowerPoint. Accountancy was boring and didn’t pay well. And banking, in some nebulous way, wouldn’t suit me.
‘Why not?’ I said. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m too nice. I’m awful.’
‘Good. But you need more than that. You need to fit into the culture.’
‘That’s what I said.’
‘The culture isn’t just about being “awful”. There are other things.’
‘It wouldn’t be a good fit for you.’
I liked when he rolled his shirtsleeves up. He had big square wrists and jutting elbows. Sometimes I worried he could tell how often I thought about his arms. He was always calling me a freak for other, much less strange things, so I couldn’t own up to it.
On Fridays he always had something work-related, and on weekends he was usually abroad. I kept Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays free just in case, but mostly Thursday was the only day he could see me. Really we didn’t know each other at all, or have much of a routine going. I thought of something as a common occurrence between us if it had happened twice or three times. We’d been friends for about two months, and in total I’d spent perhaps thirty hours in his company—little more than a day. But I was in the habit of thinking he was a habit.
‘Thanks for your time,’ he said when I left. I wasn’t sure if he put it formally to give himself an ironic get-out clause like I did, or if he how stiff he sounded. ‘I’ll text you.’ He seemed to think only a man could initiate a conversation. Worse still, his saying it meant I couldn’t send him one first. It would look like I’d despaired of his getting in contact and was only doing it myself as a last resort.
I explained to the class that there were two ways to say the ‘th’ sound. The one at the start of ‘think’ and at the end of ‘tooth’ was the voiceless dental fricative. If you held your hand in front of your mouth, you could feel a puff of breath escaping as you said it. By contrast, the one at the start of ‘that’, ’these’ and ‘those’ was the voiced dental fricative. Your tongue blocked the air when you made the sound.
As a Dubliner, I had gone twenty-two years without knowingly pronouncing either phoneme. If anyone had thought there was anything wrong with my English, they’d kept it to themselves. Now I had to practise dental fricatives, voiced and un-, so the kids could copy me.
‘You stick your tongue between your teeth,’ I said. ‘And then you breathe out.’ That was what the teacher’s guide told me to say, but I tried it myself and produced a sound unlike anything I had ever heard from an English speaker, or indeed from any other vertebrate in the animal kingdom. I’d have to ask Julian to show me how to do it later.
At the end of September, he took me out with some of his friends. They weren’t from his bank—he kept work and non-work people separate. But like virtually everyone he spent time with, they were British and worked in finance. You could tell they were posh by how difficult it was to make out whether they were saying ‘yeah’ or ‘year’, and by how slowly they talked. They never mumbled or hesitated. If they didn’t have the next word ready, they paused until it came to them.
We met at a bar in a boutique hotel on Wyndham Street. The men were in suits, navy or charcoal grey, while the few women present wore shift dresses of indeterminate cut and unassailable office-appropriateness.
‘What do you do?’ one of them asked. The skin around his eyes looked ten years older than the rest of him.
‘I’m an English teacher.’
He seemed to find this frightfully bohemian. ‘That’s gutsy. It takes balls to come out and do something like that. Especially here.’
Julian had said something similar when we had that conversation. Briefly, I wondered if he was actually as interesting as I found him or if he was just the first banker I’d happened to meet.
‘Brave?’ said another. ‘I don’t know about that. What’s gonna happen? Will the building explode if she forgets to show up one day?’
‘I’d take a lot more sick leave if I could make that happen,’ I said.
They acted like this was the pinnacle of wit. Had Julian asked them to be nice to me?
He said very little to me all evening. I understood why, but it irked me—though not for the reason he would have guessed—to watch him conversing with one of the other women. I knew if I mentioned later that maybe he should pay me attention when I was his guest, he’d chalk it up to jealousy. It wasn’t that. It was just that the people beside me were boring and I wanted to talk to him instead. At first it was hard to hear what he and the woman were saying, but an adjacent conversation quietened down and it emerged they were discussing the Hinkley Point nuclear project in the UK.
‘It’s low-carbon,’ she said, ‘and we can’t keep relying on imported energy.’
‘It’s a lot of money when you compare it to electricity,’ said Julian.
‘But the market’s depressed right now,’ she said. ‘You need to look at where prices will go over the next few decades.’
I wanted to keep following their exchange, but one of the men on the other side turned to me. ‘Do you like teaching?’ he said.
‘No. I can’t stand children.’
‘You don’t like kids?’ He waved over at Julian. ‘Mate, this girl is ice cold.’
‘That’s why we’re friends,’ Julian said. I agreed with him there.
I didn’t often see my flatmates. On an average day, we shared little more than hellos and goodnights.
There were three of us. I’d booked the room on AirBnB until I could save up a deposit on something more permanent, but the others lived there long-term. Emily was the oldest and the most proactive. At twenty-eight, she’d been in Hong Kong a few years. Freya was around my age and her chief hobby was complaining about her job. She changed into her pyjamas the minute she got in the door and had four sets of house slippers: bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, other.
Emily always had something to say when I came in. ‘Could you close the fridge more quietly?’ was this evening’s criticism.
‘Sorry,’ I said. I didn’t see how you could make noise shutting a refrigerator, but it was best to go along with it.
‘And eat those grapes soon. They’re going off.’
That was what she said when she wanted to take something of mine without having to ask. I wasn’t in the mood to humour her, so I said, ‘Sure, will do.’
The fact that I started work at ten and not nine was a source of resentment. If I came back late, the assembled salaried rolled their eyes.
‘Guess you don’t have to be up early tomorrow,’ Freya would say.
‘Or get any ironing done,’ Emily added. ‘No shirts for you.’
I could have pointed out that because they came in to work at nine they got to leave at six, but it wasn’t worth it. I was sharing four hundred and fifty square feet with two people I’d never have otherwise chosen to spend time with. I let things slide.
My lack of a 9-to-6 card also meant I had no right to use the flat during peak hours. If I tried to shower in the morning or cook dinner when I got home at 8.30pm, they said I could do it some other time while they were stuck at work. The noise of them getting ready woke me up—spoons clanging on bowls, taps protesting on being asked to produce water—but I couldn’t brush my teeth until the bathroom was free. I lay there and ran my tongue over the night’s accumulated plaque on my teeth. We often got cockroaches. I swore I could hear them in the dark, though I knew scientifically that this couldn’t be true.
All this to say that spending the night at Julian’s became ever more appealing. His guest bedroom was an ensuite and he had a washer and dryer that he never used. (Time, he said, is money. It takes me sixty minutes to do laundry myself, versus sixty Hong Kong dollars or six pounds to get someone else to do it, and an hour of my time is worth a lot more than that.) As soon as I woke up, I bustled around making myself clean. He’d left for work by the time I got out of the shower.
My presence was probably more of an imposition than he made out. But I thought it was fine as long as I remembered it was a favour and he was within his rights to make me leave any night he didn’t want me there. He gave me a key, which I stressed wasn’t necessary but which I supposed made things easier for him because he didn’t have to be there to let me in. To make myself useful, I started cooking for him.
‘What’s this?’ he’d say when he got home at night. I’d be frying tofu or baking vegetable dumplings. His kitchen was well-equipped in terms of fixed appliances but had next to no pans or crockery, so I was limited in what I could do.
‘Surprise,’ I’d say.
‘Jesus. Gordon Ramsay turns herbivore.’
He was a better amateur chef than I, but he liked seeing me busy while he collapsed on the couch. Anyway, the food was decent—it’s hard to mess up the kind of things I made—and I was comfortable knowing I’d contributed something.
‘How did I end up taking you on?’ he said once while I was doing the dishes.
‘I think you’re familiar with the history of it.’
‘I know the sequence of how it happened, but I have no idea why it did.’
‘You don’t sound happy about it. Maybe I should fuck off.’
‘Maybe you should.’
‘I’m sure you’ve got banking to do or whatever. Is that what you’re doing right now?’
He closed his laptop. ‘Just checking emails. It’s morning in New York.’
‘It’s always the morning somewhere.’
‘And we’re bound to have an office there, wherever it is. Funnily enough, they’ve all got those big world clocks on their desktops, but no-one thinks to check what time it is in Hong Kong.’
‘Do you check what time it is for them when you’re about to send an email?’
‘Of course not. It’s their job to be awake.’
I offered to clean his apartment, too, but he had someone who came to do that—I never saw her, perhaps by design—and anyway, he said I’d miss things. He didn’t even like me wiping the stovetop after I was done. I left too much soap behind, he said. The inside of his bedroom was still a mystery to me, but I imagined everything folded and stored in optimised locations for speedy access.
After about three months, I was spending a few nights a week at his apartment. My bed had a soft twill houndstooth throw that I thought about asking if I could take home, but I decided I preferred having it in his place than in mine. On the wall in my room there were three black-and-white pictures of London. This small effort was the strongest evidence of personalisation I’d found in the whole apartment. One day at work I printed out an image of Dublin and asked him if I could put it in the empty frame on the mantlepiece. ‘Be my guest,’ he said. He often came back after I’d gone to sleep. He told me I was welcome to stay over while he was travelling for work, but I tried not to. The temptation to look around his room would have been overwhelming.
‘We don’t see much of you lately,’ said Emily one day.
‘There’s more space for the two of you that way,’ I said.
‘Yeah, but maybe we should do something.’
‘We physically can’t all be here at once. It’s claustrophobic.’
‘Let’s hang out somewhere else. We used to go for drinks all the time.’
It hadn’t been ‘all the time’, but I thought it best to file that under ‘battles not picked’.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘When are you free?’
Julian was coming back from Singapore then. We’d planned to get pita flatbreads at a vegetarian restaurant in Sheung Wan. ‘Sorry, I can’t.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Dinner with a friend.’
‘Is this the same friend you stay over with all the time?’
‘I mean, I don’t have that many friends.’
Whenever Emily was annoyed, she started tidying up minor things as if she hoped I’d notice how good she was for not asking me to help. Right now she was fluffing up the couch cushions and picking off tiny hairs.
‘It’s weird living with someone who treats you like a stranger,’ she said. ‘I’m not asking for us to be best friends, but please be civil with us.’
‘“Us”? Does Freya feel that way, too?’
‘Yeah. You’ve dropped us for some guy and you won’t even tell us about him.’
‘I’m not with him.’
‘Then why are you always at his place?’
‘He’s just a friend. We like spending time together.’
‘Okay, whatever. I’m just saying it’s selfish to ditch us because you’ve found someone else to hang out with.’
Selfish. I’d heard that one before. But it was unfair coming from someone I was doing a massive favour. She got more shower, kitchen and laundry time than she was paying for because I was washing and feeding myself elsewhere. If she wanted to complain that I was never there, then accuse me of taking up too much space whenever I did make an appearance, then it was no wonder I preferred Julian.
The next evening, I narrated the argument to Julian. He nodded and of-coursed in all the right places. ‘She sounds like a bitch,’ he said.
I flinched at that word but didn’t pick him up on it. ‘Have you ever had flatmates?’ I said.
‘Yes, of course, at Oxford, and when I was starting out in London. Most of them were fine. One guy was an absolute nutter. This was in my final year of uni. He was doing his dissertation on some existential quandary. You’d hear him pacing around all night muttering about it. And he never ate solid food—he put everything into this big fucking blender. Lived on smoothies. I think he got the best first in his year.’
‘So having your own place is better?’
Neither of us pointed out that he didn’t live alone anymore. We finished the wine and he went to get another bottle. My jeans had a hole on the inseam near the top of my thigh. I picked at it, then jerked my hand away when I heard him returning.
‘You never tell me anything about yourself,’ I said. ‘What was your last girlfriend like?’
He twirled his glass. ‘She was fine. I was with her for about a year but then she got sent back to London.’
‘How long ago was that?’
‘We broke up a few months ago.’
‘No, none at all. I don’t tend to look back.’
We drank our wine and enjoyed each other’s silence. His cushions, I noticed, were beautiful: pebble corduroy, gold and ivory sateen. I picked one up and hugged it to my chest.
‘That thing you said before about wanting to be a history teacher,’ I said, ‘were you really just bullshitting me?’
‘Completely. I’m glad other people do it, but for my part I’d rather hang on to the dim prospect of owning a house.’
‘What if that wasn’t a factor? What if you could own a house no matter what you did?’
‘I’ve never thought about that because it’s certainly not happening in our lifetimes. Possibly I’d have stayed at Oxford and done more history. But there’s no point dwelling on it. I have every respect for people who follow their passions, but I prefer stability.’
I wondered if he meant his comment to have point.
‘It could be worse,’ I said. ‘You could have no passions and also no stability.’
‘To be clear, Ava: in your estimation, we’re both dead behind the eyes but at least I can pay rent?’
‘Yeah, pretty much.’
‘We really are the denizens of a new belle époch, aren’t we.’
‘Arsehole bankers and deadbeats.’
‘Not all bankers are arseholes.’
‘Yeah, just you.’
‘I like talking to you,’ I said—quite stupidly, I realised while saying it. ‘It makes me feel solid, like someone can confirm I’m real.’
‘Do you like having me here?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’re good company. If I’ve got this space and I like sharing it with you, there’s no reason not to.’
I frowned. ‘You mean it just happens to suit you, having me here.’
‘I wouldn’t say it “suits” me. You’re making me sound calculating. I’m saying it makes sense to ask you over, and that’s why I do it.’
‘If it stopped making sense, would you stop asking me over?’
‘You mean would I do something that didn’t make sense to me? Well, no.’
I leaned over to refill my glass. Our legs touched.
‘Here, let me get it,’ he said, and he hovered close to me as he poured it.
I waited. Finally he said, ‘Do you mind if…?’
We kissed for a while. Then he led me to his room. He ran the errands—pulled down the blinds, dimmed the lights, shoved everything off the bed—while I took off my necklace, dropping it slowly on the nightstand so the steel wouldn’t rattle against the wood. Conscious that he was watching me, I tried not to appear curious about his possessions.
My hair got in the way. Julian caught some of it in his mouth and then it got jammed in my zip at the back and he said: ‘I hope this doesn’t end in A&E.’ ‘Really,’ I said, ‘because I hope it does.’ ‘You say the weirdest fucking things,’ he said. I liked that. It made me feel like a sphinx—lion-limbed, limestone-faced, ready to riddle him something.