white on blue graphic reading 'Modern Loneliness inspired by Lauv, Francesca Burke'

Modern Loneliness by Francesca Burke

This was inspired by Lauv’s song, Modern Loneliness, and by a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately.


The Post Office

Neville

‘Are you waiting to post an item or buy stamps?’ The girl at the post office was young, although everyone looked young to Neville these days. He housed a sneaking suspicion that eighty-four was, in fact, old.

A couple of people shuffled on their feet, avoiding eye contact. Neville raised a hand. ‘I am,’ he said tentatively.

‘I can do it for you!’ she said, leading him away from the queue and toward the self-checkout tills.

‘Oh, I don’t mind—’

‘I can show you how to use the self-checkout if you haven’t done it before?’

‘All right, thank you.’

He thought it would be rude to mention that he hadn’t minded queuing up, as he hadn’t spoken to anyone since the previous afternoon except the bus driver. She probably had queue-busting targets to meet.

Joe

‘Are you waiting to post an item or buy stamps?’ the girl at the post office was cute, although not in the sort of way Joe’s friends would’ve thought.

‘I am,’ he said tentatively.

‘I can do it for you, or show you how to do it,’ she offered, gesturing to the self-checkout. Too late, Joe realised he was being queue-managed. Standing in line for five minutes hadn’t bothered him as much as working at home was bothering him, but somehow his feet were already walking toward the checkout.

‘I actually already know how to use them, thanks.’

‘Okay, great.’ She was already turning towards the next customer.

Joe couldn’t figure out what was bothering him until he had walked home, when he realised she was the only person he’d spoken to all day.

Sunday Dinner

Neville

Neville liked his niece, Janet, but she had two difficult qualities: one, she was always in a rush to pick someone up from football practice or drop someone off at piano lessons. Two, she considered Neville her third child.

‘How’s the flat?’ Janet asked over a Sunday roast. ‘Anything interesting happening in your block?’

‘The flat is fine,’ Neville replied. ‘The couple who just moved in next door seem to own four pet snakes, but otherwise not a lot’s going on.’

Four snakes?’ Janet’s youngest, Kayden, lit up. ‘Which types?’

‘Grass snakes, apparently. Nothing too exciting.’

‘Could I come round and see them one day?’

‘I’ll ask—’

‘Kayden, you do not need to bother Uncle Neville. Uncle Neville, are you sure it’s a good idea for you to be in that flat alone? Since your hip operation, I mean. It might be good for you to have some company.’

‘Well, I’ve no plans to get a pet snake—’

‘I’ll ask Tim to look into daytime carers for you. Just to be on the safe side.’

‘I honestly don’t think—’

‘Well, I’m too busy to pop in and it’s really too far for Beth and Darren to come round every week, so I think it’s best.’

Neville wondered what she’d say if he ever mentioned he occasionally walked the length of the high street by himself.

Joe

Joe liked his mother, but he wasn’t sure she realised that he’d noticed his dad moved out while he was at university.

‘You haven’t finished eating,’ she said as he set his cutlery down at the end of Sunday lunch.

‘I don’t love lamb,’ he said.

‘I didn’t know that!’

Joe was ninety nine percent sure he’d mentioned it every time she’d cooked lamb since he was a toddler.

‘I told Aunt Nicole you’d be round in the week to fix her computer,’ she said as she began clearing plates.

‘I’m a graphic designer; I told you, I don’t know how to fix computers.’

‘They’re all the same, though, aren’t they. Have you heard from Craig lately?’

‘No, he’s busy.’ Joe shrugged.

‘Well, he seems pretty active on Facebook…’

‘And Instagram and Snapchat,’ Joe agreed, ‘all with Annalise.’ He mentally said a small prayer that his mother would understand his tone of voice and take the hint that he wasn’t in the mood to discuss his best friend going out with his ex-girlfriend.

‘Mm. It’s a shame that things never worked out with you and Annalise, but you never know who’s around the corner!’ No hint taken. This was almost as bad as the Instagramming. ‘Anyway, I always thought she was a bit vapid for you. She never really had a sense of humour.’

‘Mm.’ The fact his mother was right did not help Joe’s mood.

‘If you’re feeling a bit down about it, you should get out more! There’s that running club down at the park.’

‘I can’t really run since I broke my leg at uni. Not at the level to keep up, anyway.’

‘How about that photography club?’

‘The membership fees are astronomical.’

Well. There are things to do, you know. Hobbies to take your mind off her.’

‘Yeah, Netflix and Minecraft. Completely free. Ish.’

The Supermarket

  Neville’s designated Helper for Care in the Community at Sainsbury’s was named Hanna-without-an-H. She’d pounced on him as he made his way into the supermarket. A few years previously and he’d have managed to dodge her (and a life size cut-out of an elderly person, next to which several Hannas lurked), but the walking stick that kept him steady was probably also the thing she made a beeline for.

‘You’ll need someone to help you with all this, then!’ Hanna-without-an-H swiped his list from his hand so quickly that Neville thought for a moment that her hand had passed right through his.

‘Actually, I can—’ she was already skimming his list.

‘Marmalade! Oh, you’re just like my grandmother. Do you know, she’s ninety next year. Marmalade is down aisle twelve, I think… Let’s go!’

‘It’s in aisle eight. I prefer to start at this end of the shop and work my way down. Easier than walking around randomly.’

‘Oh, of course.’ Hanna-without-an-H blinked. ‘What a sensible idea. You’re not just a pretty face, are you, Ned!’

‘Neville.’

Joe

Joe had not left the house for two days save for a trip to the post box to return some online shopping, so he walked into town for a big shop. That it was Friday evening was not lost on him. That he almost walked into Craig and Annalise shopping for pre-cinema pick ‘n’ mix was not lost on him. That his biggest client was late paying an invoice and he could afford neither the cinema nor more than baked beans was not lost on him.

All the big tills were closed, so Joe queued for the self-checkout. His phone was on its last slither of battery, so he kept it in his pocket as he waited. He was behind six people and all six of them were on their phones—no, wait, that lady was talking to her toddler. No, wait, she was on the phone. He wondered if he looked that gormless when he looked at his phone in queues. He usually used it to catch up with things, though—emails from clients, the news, texts from his younger sister at university.

Okay, he was lying to himself. If his phone had the juice, he’d be staring at Craig’s latest Instagram.

The queue was beginning to ease up, so Joe stepped forward to the nearest checkout… just as some spotty teenager cut ahead.

‘Excuse me?’

‘Oh, sorry.’ The teen looked confused, which annoyed Joe more. ‘Honestly didn’t see you there.’

The Bus

Neville

Neville had mixed feelings about buses. On the one hand, he could relax knowing someone else was being paid to pay attention to roundabouts and cyclists and those yellow box junctions he’d never been too sure about. On the other hand, he often ended up sat next to very loud passengers who did not like to wash regularly, and usually needed the driver to lower the ramp so he could get on. Today he was even struggling to get his bus pass to work.

‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t actually read that. It seems a little faded.’ The driver frowned and leaned forward. ‘Neville… what’s your surname?’

‘Blackman.’

‘I’ll take your word for it, sir, go on.’

Grateful, Neville made his way to the nearest seats. Another OAP was parked in one priority seat, her trolley blocking the next available one.

‘Excuse me,’ Neville smiled, ‘may I?’

She didn’t look at him. Neville frowned. He was just as entitled to the priority-front-of-bus seats as she was. His walking stick even matched the little sticker on the wall. The bus lurched off, and Neville had to grab the handrail to keep his balance.

Excuse me!’

She blinked up at him. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.’

Joe

Joe should have scheduled his meeting for half an hour before the school day ended, not half an hour after. The bus was rammed with brightly coloured blazers and the heady scent of Lynx.

There was a single empty seat, on the top deck at the very back. Joe had no sooner sat down when a blazer-wearing rugrat (had he ever been that small?) plonked himself down on Joe’s lap.

Excuse me.’

‘Oh!’ the teenager jumped up. ‘Sorry, mate. Genuinely didn’t see you.’

Home

Neville

When Janet rang Uncle Neville to invite him to Kayden’s birthday party, she didn’t question why he hadn’t picked up. He was probably in the shops or asleep in front of the telly. When he didn’t answer that evening, nor the next morning, she drove over before work.

He didn’t answer the door when she rang the bell, but it didn’t feel right using her spare key, so she knocked on the next door along. ‘Neville?’ asked the woman when Janet explained why she was there. A snake tattoo slithered along her wrist. ‘Haven’t seen him since we first moved in, I’m afraid.’

Pushing down her sense of foreboding, Janet used the spare key.

Neville’s belongings were there—books, framed photos of Aunt Marjorie and the family, faded sofa and antiquated television set—but Neville was not. Janet checked the bedroom and the bathroom—she knew she should have pushed to install handrails in the shower—but the only signs of life were a spider plant in the bedroom and an actual spider in the bathroom.

Maybe he had a hospital appointment. Or the GP. She’d pop into the doctors now just to be sure, it was only a minute’s drive away.

As Janet locked the front door behind her, she was sure she could hear someone talking. The radio hadn’t been on, had it? Funny. She almost thought she could hear Neville calling her.

‘Janet? Janet, I’m standing over here!’

Janet rubbed her temples. She really needed to cut down on coffee.

If he wasn’t at the GP, she’d ring back tomorrow.

Joe

Joe’s mother was getting worried. Her eldest child was an inconsistent texter but he usually RSVP’d to family events, even just a Saturday evening curry. She stopped off at his flatshare before work, let in by a twenty-something wearing a Star Trek dressing gown.

‘Is Joe in his room?’ she asked once she’d crossed the threshold. God, someone needed to speak to the landlord about the damp.

‘Joe? Haven’t seen him for… weeks, actually. I do nights, so we never really spoke anyway.’ The twenty-something yawned. ‘Honestly, I thought he’d moved out.’

Joe’s mother knocked on his bedroom door once, then walked in.

Her son’s belongings were all in place: inconsistently made bed, overlarge computer and graphics tablet on an IKEA desk, a couple of running trophies. His phone was on the bedside cabinet, fully charged. She hadn’t seen him without a phone since he was twelve. He was probably down the shop, or out for a run.

She let herself out of his room and waved goodbye to the Star Wars dressing gown.

‘Mum? Mum, I’m right here! Mum!’

Joe’s mother paused on the doorstep. Was that Joe she could hear? She strained her ears, but it was fading fast. Just a radio somewhere.

She headed back to her car, anxious. Joe wasn’t the type to just disappear off the face of the earth—not without ringing someone first. She’d give it another day, then message Craig on Facebook.


Did you know you can read my short stories before they’re public by joining my Patreon? When you join, I’ll name a character after you. Alternately, consider buying me a coffee – you’ll still be helping me to build a sustainable career, but with fewer direct debits.

Learn about where you can get my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes here.

Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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