Already an international bestseller, Dolly Alderton’s debut novel Ghosts lands in the US this August to much excitement. This smart, sexy, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy about ex-boyfriends, imperfect parents, friends with kids, and a man who disappears the moment he says “I love you” is the perfect summer read. Keep scrolling to read an exclusive excerpt!
He chose the pub. This was an enormous relief. Lola had been giving me a crash course in modern dating over a series of drinks and emails since my birthday and had warned me of all the impending disappointments to expect. One of them was that men were completely incapable of choosing or even suggesting a place for a date. I found this sort of apathetic, adolescent, can’t-be-arsed, useless-intern-says-he-still-doesn’t-know-how-to-use-the-printer attitude an immense turn-off. Lola told me to get over it, because otherwise I’d never confirm a date and the rest of my life would be spent in a sexless semi-coma on my sofa, sending the message “Hey, you still free tomorrow? What time? What do you fancy?” back and forth on Linx to men I’d never, ever meet.
Max told me where we were going to meet within an hour of talking.
“Dive bars and old-man pubs okay?” he wrote.
“They’re my favourite,” I replied. “No one wants to go to them with me any more.”
“I feel like everyone loved them when we were students, but now they don’t because they’re no longer ironic.”
“I think you’re right,” he replied. “Maybe they think we’re edging too close towards being the old man to enjoy the old-man pubs.”
“Maybe old-man pubs only bookend a person’s drinking life. Ironically when we’re teenagers, then earnestly when we’re retired,” I typed.
“And in between we’re stuck in a hell of gastropubs serving £9 sausage rolls.”
“Meet me at The Institution in Archway at seven o’clock on Thursday,” he wrote. “There’s a darts board, an old Irish landlord. Not a Negroni or industrial light fitting in sight.”
“Perfect,” I wrote.
“And there’s a dance floor I can throw you around on if all goes well.”
I had been on Linx for three weeks, but my drink with Max was my first date. This was not through lack of trying. I had, in total, twenty-seven conversations on the go with twenty-seven different men. Which sounds like a lot, but given that I had initially spent approximately four hours of each waking day on the app, greenlighting hundreds upon thousands of men, to know just twenty-seven of them wanted to match me back seemed meagre. I asked Lola if this was normal. She said it was and informed me that her matches halved when she turned thirty, as lots of men put their preferred age limit to thirty and under. She said once she found that out, she was much more accepting of how few matches she got. For a while, she said, she combed Reddit threads for her name because she was convinced there was “a rumour” about her online that was rapidly mutating without her knowledge and was putting men off. I thought Lola’s “rumour on the dark web” theory was quite a self-aggrandizing paranoia to have about yourself, but I was reminded that she also was long-convinced she would die by “assassination” and I didn’t have the heart to tell her only famous people get assassinated. Normal people just get shot in the open.
For the first few days, I was totally enamoured with Linx. I fell under its enchantment. I’d cheated the system of romance—all these handsome and interesting men, just waiting for me in my pocket. For years, we’d been told finding love was like an impossible quest of endurance, timing and luck. I thought you had to go to awful pop-up events and specialist bookshops; keep your eyes peeled at weddings and on the tube; strike up conversation with other solo travellers whenever you were abroad; get out of the house four nights a week to maximize your chances. But none of those strategic man-hours were needed any more—we didn’t have to put in the time like we used to. As I flicked through prospective love interests on the tube, on the bus, in the loo, I realized how time-efficient this method was. Looking for love didn’t have to be factored in to my schedule in the way I’d dreaded—I could do it while watching TV.
Lola told me this was a completely normal reaction for a first-time dating app user—that the dreamy haze would plateau in a couple of weeks and then dull to a despondent ennui and ultimate deletion of the app in about three months’ time. She said it worked in this cycle until you met someone. Lola had been on and off dating apps for seven years now.
She also warned me that the way the apps initially hook you in was by offering up their best produce to new users. She seemed to think there was an algorithm that determined this—the most-ticked people were offered up as bait for the new user’s first month, then they leave you with the rest of the riff-raff. She said it worked because you’d wade through the bottom-dwellers indefinitely, always holding out hope that you’d find the chest of buried treasure again.
The most common type of conversation I’d had on Linx was stilted chit-chat as insubstantial and fleeting as a summer breeze. They always began with an anodyne: “Hey! How’s it going?” or an emoji of a waving hand. There was a minimum of three hours’ delay in their response; three days was more common. But the anticipation was never rewarded with quality of content. “Sorry, been insane at work, food writing that’s cool. I work in property” was all the long silence afforded. These conversations also revolved a lot around the mention of days—How’s your day going? What does Tuesday look like? How’s Thursday treated you? What are you doing this weekend?—which didn’t carry much topical relevance anyway as the day he was referring to or I was asking about was only addressed a full week later.
I had also quickly identified another, very different, type of nuisance, but a nuisance none the less. This was a type of man I labelled “pretend boyfriend man.” Pretend Boyfriend Man used his profile to push an agenda of a dreamy, committed reliability. His photo selection always included an image of him holding a friend’s baby or, worse, stripping wallpaper or sanding a floor with his top off. His profile included supposedly throwaway phrases such as “on the lookout for a wife” or “My dream evening? Snuggling on the sofa while watching a Sofia Coppola film.” He knew exactly what he was doing and I wasn’t having any of it.
Equally as useless, but earning slightly more respect from me, were the men who were unabashedly forthcoming about the fact they wanted a night of sex and nothing more. I had one of these virtual encounters early on with a bespectacled primary school teacher called Aaron who I exchanged pleasant small talk with for half an hour, before he asked if I wanted to “go on a date tonight.” It was half eleven on a Tuesday. I asked him if he meant a date or whether he just wanted me to come over to his flat. “I suppose I could force a quick pint down,” he replied sulkily. That was the last of mine and Aaron’s dialogue.
There were a number of effete subgenres of language employed by many of the men I spoke to. “Good evening to you, m’lady— doth thou pubbeth on this sunny Saturday?” one asked. “If music be the food of love, play on, but if a food writer love both love and music—shall we go out dancing next week?” another wrote in an incomprehensible riddle that reminded me of those questions I got in my GCSE maths papers (Shivani has ten oranges, if she gives the square root of them away, how many does she have left?). It was a unique style of seduction that I hadn’t come across before—wistful and nostalgic, meaningless and strange. Humourless and impenetrable.
Some, on the other hand, made a spectacle of their tonal plainness. “U ENGLISH??” a red-headed mechanic asked as his opening gambit. A few of the men’s messages had the manner of an unedited, tedious, all-day stream of consciousness, with ramblings such as: “Hey how’s it going just had a cold shower so annoying the boiler’s broken!! Oh well now on my way out for coffee might get a bacon sarnie you only live once. Later going for a swim was planning on meeting my friend Charlie for a drink but he’s having issues finding a dogsitter, the pub we want to go to doesn’t allow dogs how’s your day xx.” “Fantastic profile, Nina” was the opening sentence from one man, in the manner of a headmaster handing out end-of-term reports.
And the more men I saw, the more I pieced together categories of humans that I never knew existed. There were the men who were incredibly excited about the fact they’d once been to Las Vegas. There were the guys who were obsessed with the fact they lived in London, which made me nervous that they would forgo a pub or bar for a first date and instead choose hiking up the Millennium Dome or abseiling down the Natural History Museum. I kept seeing Festival Man—a bloke who worked in IT by day, wore glitter on his face by night; who saved up all his holiday allowance to go to five festivals a year. There were the men who lived on canal boats, enjoyed fire poi, had had a taste of harem pants and looked like they wanted more. There were the hundreds of men who feigned indifference to being on Linx—some of whom said their friends had made them do it and they had no idea why they were there, as if downloading a dating app, filling in a profile with copious personal information and uploading photos of yourself was as easy to do by accident as taking the wrong turning on a motorway.
There were the men who wanted you to know they’d read and continued to read a lot of books, and not just the ones by Dan Brown—real ones, by Hemingway and Bukowski and Alastair Campbell. There were graphic designers—Jesus, there were so many graphic designers. Why had I only ever met a handful of graphic designers in real life and yet I had seen at least 350 of them on this dating app?
The saddest category I’d noticed was the Left-Behind Guys. They would not have been aware that they gave off any particularly melancholic personal brand, but they did. They were normally in their late thirties or early forties, with big grinning faces betrayed by their half-dead eyes. Photos showed them giving a best man’s speech or reverently beholding a friend’s baby during a christening. Their fatigue and longing were palpable. They came up, on average, every ten clicks, and each one broke my heart afresh each time.
The most simultaneously reassuring and unsettling discovery I made in those first few intense weeks of compulsive right- and leftclicking on Linx was just how unimaginative humans are. None of us would ever fully grasp the extent of our magnificent unoriginality—it would be too painful to process. I-like-theoutdoors-also-like-the-indoors I-love-pizza-I’m-looking-for-someonewho-can-make-me-laugh-I-just-want-someone-to-come-home-toand-feel-wriggling-next-to-me-in-the-middle-of-the-night unoriginality. There was the evidence, in all these profiles, where who we really are and who we’d like everyone to think we are were in such unsubtle tension. How clear it suddenly was that we are all the same organs, tissue and liquids packaged up in one version of a million clichés, who all have insecurities and desires; the need to feel nurtured, important, understood and useful in one way or another. None of us are special. I don’t know why we fight it so much.
Here’s what I knew about Max before I met him: Max had hair that was a shade between sand and caramel and was cropped but just long enough to show its loose, messy curls. He was 6 foot 4, a full foot taller than me. His skin was surprisingly tawny for someone with fair colouring—he was tanned from being outside, which his photos made a point of declaring he did a lot. His eyes were moss green and gently sloping in a way that suggested he was benevolent and might have an elderly, incapacitated neighbour who he sometimes bought groceries for. He was thirty-seven. He lived in Clapton. He grew up in Somerset. He liked to surf. He looked good in a chunky roll-neck. He grew vegetables in an allotment near to his flat. We’d established the following shared interests, experiences and beliefs: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was the soundtrack of our childhoods; we loved churches and hated religion; we liked to regularly swim outdoors; we agreed strawberry was the best and most underrated ice-cream flavour due to its obvious nature; Mexico, Iceland and Nepal were next on our respective travel wish lists
I showed Lola Max’s profile and she eagerly said she’d “seen him on there,” which I didn’t love. I had thought of these men as offerings from Mother Destiny—hand-selected possible partners, chosen especially for me (“It’s not cock couture,” Lola said). While speaking with pictures of my potential soulmate, I had forgotten that hundreds and thousands of other women were assessing their prospective futures from their sofas and commutes too. Lola told me this was a classic reaction of a co-dependent monogamist who hadn’t properly dated before and that if I wanted to get anywhere in dating apps, I’d have to toughen up. “It’s cut-throat,” she informed me. “You can’t personalize this process. You’ve got to be in it to win it. You need to be fighting fit and stay focused. It’s why it’s a young man’s game.” She told me that Max could be something of a Linx Celebrity, which she had encountered a handful of times—dastardly men who were prolific on apps thanks to their good looks and pre-packaged charm (she once discovered she and her colleague were dating the same one: all the messages from him had been copied and pasted). They wouldn’t commit to anything substantial, she explained, because they wouldn’t stop being single until they’d finally run out of options and they knew that women would never, ever stop right-clicking on their profile.
Max was ten minutes late. I hated lateness. Being late is a selfish habit adopted by boring people in search of a personality quirk who can’t be bothered to take up an instrument. I tried reading my book, a detailed but digestible account of North Korea, but I was so nervous, my eyes kept flicking up from the page in search of Max and I couldn’t absorb any of the words.
“Hello!” I finally texted him after fifteen minutes had passed. “I’m at the bar. What are you drinking?”
“Got us a table outside so I can smoke,” he replied. “Pint of pale ale would be great, thank you.” This slightly annoyed me, not only because he had not checked whether I smoked before planting us outside on what was quite a cold evening but because he hadn’t sent me a text to let me know he was sitting outside. Was he waiting for me to do a full external recce of the site to happen upon him before our date could begin? How long had he been waiting there? I was reminded that the behaviour around dating had its own set of rules and standards, which all the participants had to seem overly relaxed about at all times. It was completely different to having a drink with a friend. How strange it would have been for Lola to have done this if we’d agreed to meet at a pub she suggested that I’d never been to before.
I ordered a gin and tonic and a pale ale and took one last glance at my face in the mirrored panel that lined the back of the bar behind the bottles. I had put on some token mascara and little else, and my fringe was on its best behaviour. I walked out to the beer garden, which was empty other than for Max, who was sitting on a bench reading a book. I wondered if he was reading it, or just pretending to read it like I was. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans and brown leather boots. The first thing I noticed were his very, very long legs, one of which stretched out to the side of the picnic table.
I walked towards him and he looked up and smiled at me in recognition. He glowed like an ember—his eyes shining, his beard golden brown, his skin burnished from sunbeams. His tousled hair looked like it had been washed in the sea and dishevelled by the windy afternoon. There was dirt on his boots. There was dirt on his jeans. He was as solid as a Sequoia, high as a Redwood and as broad as the prairie. He was earthly and godly; elemental and ethereal. Both not of this earth and a poster boy for it.
“Hey,” he said and stood up to tower over me. His voice was low and soft; the distant rumble of thunder.
“What are you reading?” I asked. He kissed me on both cheeks and held up the cover for me to see.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s a story told from the perspective of a man on his deathbed looking back on his life and reflecting on what he’s learnt. It’s all about the passag e of time, which I used to find moving and I now find terrifying.”
“The passage-of-time stuff is the worst,” I said, sitting down and placing the drinks on the table, hoping he hadn’t noticed the nervous warble in my voice. “My favourite genre of literature used to be old-person-inches-towards-death-and-thinks-about-the-past-withepiphany. I can hardly bear it now.”
“Me too,” he said.
He looked older than thirty-seven in the flesh. His pictures hadn’t captured the strands of grey in his hair that laced through strands of white blond, streaked by the sun. The camera also hadn’t caught the creases, crinkles and lines of his skin, in which I could see cigarette smoke, late nights, sunshine, hard soap and hot water. This softened his sturdiness and made me like his face even more—I wanted to know all the pleasure and pain that had left his features rumpled. I also resented how much the visibility of his ageing seduced me—had it been worn by a woman, I might have found it haggard rather than weathered. Only a species as accommodating and nurturing as women could fetishize the frame of a sedentary middle-aged man and call it a “dad bod” or rebrand a white-haired, grumpy pensioner as a “silver fox.”
He rolled a cigarette and asked if I wanted one. I told him the truth, which was that I was desperate for one, but I hadn’t had a cigarette in three years since I gave up. As I spoke and he rolled, he glanced up at me from time to time in a gaze that made his irises seem all the more verdant. In the milliseconds in which he licked the edge of the tobacco paper he looked me in the eyes.
I asked him about his job. Job stuff is the first thing you talk about on Linx—it’s the first thing you talk about in life. I hated talking about my job. I’d noticed that anyone who has a job that could be perceived as even vaguely glamorous (art, media, food, writing, fashion) cannot talk about their work at all without everyone thinking they’re being self-important, so I’ve found it best to just avoid it. Also, everyone has an opinion on food, so when I tell someone what my job is, it’s rare that we can then move on and talk about something else. I am normally lectured on where to get the best dim sum north of the river, or which classic French cookbook is the most reliable, or the best nuts to put in brownies (I don’t need to be told this, it’s chopped hazelnuts or whole blanched almonds).
I was delighted to realize that by the time Max and I asked each other about our respective jobs, we’d been talking for a week on Linx and fifteen minutes in the flesh. Max was an accountant, which I hadn’t expected. He said a lot of people said that. He’d ended up accounting by accident, because he was good at maths and it’s what his dad did, and he’d wanted to impress his dad. When he mentioned his dad, his words were jostled with a tone of either resentment or regret. I knew it would be a subject we returned to at some point when we were drunker and more comfortable with each other and we’d steer the conversational tone until we sounded like Oprah doing a tell-all televised interview, in which we’d take turns to be the guest.
He said he’d been in a cycle for the last ten years of accounting, saving money, then taking a large chunk of time off to travel. He loved to travel. Recently, he’d become restless. He hated the daily slog of his job and dreamt of a simpler life—teaching surfing, working on a farm, living in remoteness—but he was realistic about the fact he’d probably miss his salary. He couldn’t work out which gave him greater freedom: earning enough money so he could disappear whenever he wanted, or earning no money and choosing a life of semi-permanent disappearance. He said he’d felt untethered in recent years—unsure of the sort of life that would make him happiest. He felt like he had to escape something, but he didn’t know what and he didn’t know where to go. I told him I thought that was the sensation commonly known as adulthood.
I told him about Taste, which he said he’d seen in bookshop windows. I told him about The Tiny Kitchen and he seemed genuinely fascinated by the concept, asking to see photos of my old studio flat where we did all the book’s photography. He’d read my weekly food column once or twice and told me that he’d messed up a recipe for Canadian glazed gammon—he had friends round for lunch and they’d had to order Chinese.
He asked me if I’d like another drink, I said yes and he said: “Single or double?” I smiled and he winked. We were in this together now, two comrades on a mission.
When he went into the bar, I grinned to myself and realized I was already tipsy. When he came back from the bar, we talked about Linx, which was inevitable but somehow it felt gauche to talk about the dating app that was the very reason we were on the date. It struck me that the only event where it’s appropriate to talk about the reason you’re at the event is a funeral.
Max had been on Linx for six months. It was his first time on a dating app. He said he’d initially found it fun, but the hollowness of the encounters had made him feel jaded. He’d been thinking about deleting it.
“Thanks for squeezing me in before the deadline,” I said.
“Yeah, but look at you,” he replied. “How could I not?” It was the first of a few disingenuous, dashed-off compliments and I adored every single one of them. I told him he was my first Linx date—we both made lots of bawdy jokes about him taking my app virginity which weren’t that funny at all.
He insisted on buying the third round and when he emerged back into the beer garden, I felt a strangely historic connection to him; a sense of pride and belonging; of long pre-established togetherness with this man I’d met two hours ago. When he sat down, I wanted to touch his face, which looked like it belonged to a Viking warrior. I sat on my own hand to stop myself. As he rolled another cigarette and turned to ask someone for a lighter, I noticed the unapologetic strength of his profile, particularly the slight curvature of the bridge of his nose. I wanted to put him on a coin.
I asked for a drag of his cigarette. The act of it felt good, but it tasted horrible. I’d almost forgotten how to do it, and the smoke sat in my mouth and did nothing but feel toxic and hot. My second drag tasted better. The ritual felt shared and I loved passing something back and forth between us with adolescent excitement.
“I feel like I’ve corrupted you,” he said. I told him not to worry as he hadn’t—I was bound to have a drag of a fag at some point. He told me he’d like the opportunity to corrupt me, if that was okay. I laughed in a knowing way.
He went back in to order us another round. We talked about our plans for the upcoming weekend—he was getting out of London, as he nearly always did, this time by himself to camp in Sussex. I asked how he was getting there and he said he was taking his beloved car, which was a red 1938 MG TA named Bruce. I couldn’t believe that was his car, and told him the personality hybrid of accountant who drives a classic sports car, wears muddy jeans and swims in lakes at the weekend was almost incomprehensible. He said, “But those are the best things about a person—the contradictions,” with a faraway look in his eyes. I knew that very second that if I ever had a reason to hate Max, if he ever treated me badly, I would return to this sentence as proof that he was the worst person alive. But for now, I was able to nod dreamily and agree
“Are you cold?” he asked. I was, and I wanted another drink, so we went back into the pub. A muttering old man wearing two hats (flat caps, one on top of the other) and drinking Guinness on his own started talking to us. He talked a lot about the gentrification of Archway and how he could barely recognize his road any more because of all the blocks of new-build flats. We both listened patiently, nodded along and said things like “Shocking, isn’t it?” Max bought him a pint, which I saw as an act of goodwill but also a definite full stop to our interaction with him. But he was having none of it. He shuffled his bar stool closer to us and relayed a protracted personal history of all the local MPs that had governed the constituency over the course of his lifetime. I was keen to end the conversation, and I could sense Max was too, but we were both proving a point to each other about how down to earth we were. We asked questions we didn’t want to know the answers to and feigned total absorption in his twenty-five-minute description of a particular pub in Kentish Town that he used to drink in that was now closed. We did it because we wanted to earn each other’s admiration and trust: Look how kind I am, look how curious I am. I care about local business and local libraries and the welfare of the elderly.
As Geoff (his name was Geoff ) launched into a detailed account of where the old post office used to be on Highgate Hill, I felt Max’s hand on my waist. At first, I thought this was just a signal that he too wanted this rambling monologue from Geoff to cease. But then his fingers reached underneath the fabric of my top and he slowly and lightly doodled on my bare skin. He did it all without looking at me. Just a few centimetres of flesh, only for a few minutes, then he retrieved his hand to roll another cigarette. Why was that always the most exciting bit? I knew, at some point, I would be naked with this man, our bodies interlocked. That my legs would be wrapped round his waist, or over his shoulders, or that my face would be burying itself into a pillow with the force of him behind me. And yet— I knew this physical sensation was the greatest one he’d ever be able to give me. The sexiest, most exciting, romantic, explosive feeling in the world is a matter of a few centimetres of skin being stroked for the first time in a public place. The first confirmation of desire. The first indication of intimacy. You only get that feeling with a person once.
We went outside to share another cigarette and we talked, through guilty laughter, about Geoff. He took off his denim jacket and draped it around my shoulders because I was cold. I could tell he was just as cold as I was, but I didn’t want to stop his big show of masculinity. How could I? I’d bought front-row tickets to it. I wondered how much of his behaviour this evening had been dictated by a pressure to perform his gender in such a demonstrative way. But then again, what was I doing? Why was I wearing a pair of four-inch heels that gave me blisters? Why was I laughing knowingly twice as much as I normally do and making half the amount of jokes?
I went to the loo, rearranged my fringe and texted Lola: “I’m on the best date of my life. Don’t text me back because he might see your reply. Love you.”
When I returned to him in the bar, he’d ordered us another round and a shot of tequila each.
“The music sounds so good,” I said as I watched drunken students descend into the basement club, Martha and the Vandellas wailing loudly beneath us.
“It is, they play the best songs.”
“Shall we dance?” I asked and realized how stiff I sounded.
“Let’s dance,” he replied.
We paid one pound each for entry and our hands were stamped with the words THE INSTITUTION in black ink. Initially, I felt self-conscious on the dance floor. Watching how we moved our bodies felt like an audition for the inevitable. I never used to feel anything but total liberation when dancing, but something had changed recently. I was at a wedding of a university friend a few months ago when “Love Machine” by Girls Aloud came on, and all of us rushed to the dance floor. When I looked around the circle of women, the women I’d been dancing with since I was a teenager, I suddenly saw us as completely different people. Lola in her strapless jumpsuit, using a glass of prosecco as a microphone. Meera moving her hips rhythmically around her clutch bag on the floor. We didn’t look free or wild or mysterious, we looked like pissed-up thirty-something women pointing at each other to the beat of the music we grew up with that would now be played at a nostalgia club night.
But the mix of gin, tequila and lust loosened me up enough to shimmy off my inhibitions. We danced for about an hour—sometimes comically, away from each other, with over-the-top moves. Sometimes campily, with Max twirling, spinning and dipping me, much to the chagrin of other revellers on the tightly packed dance floor. Then I heard it. The percussion of George Michael’s bassy donk donk donk donk and finger clicks.
“THIS SONG!” I shouted.
“SO GOOD!” he replied.
“IT WAS NUMBER ONE THE DAY I WAS BORN!
“IT WAS NUMBER ONE THE DAY I WAS BORN!” I repeated. “IT’S WHY MY MIDDLE NAME IS GEORGE.”
“NO!” he bellowed, his eyes wide in disbelief.
“YES!” I shouted.
“I LOVE THAT!” he shouted back, grabbing me by the waist and pulling me into him. His T-shirt was damp with sweat and he smelt like the warm earth as the air rises after a summer storm. “FUCKING WEIRDO.” He craned his head down towards me in a smile and we kissed. I draped my arms around his neck and he pulled me closer to him, lifting me off the ground.
We left the pub in search of a chippie. As we walked down Archway Road, we were side by side and he moved me so he was standing on the outside of the pavement. I was reminded of how annoyingly delicious these patronizing traditions of heteronormativity could be. Of course, the rational part of my brain wanted to tell him that he was no more capable of receiving the oncoming blow of a crashing car than I was, and his act of supposed chivalry made no sense. But I liked him standing on the outside of the pavement. I liked feeling like I was a precious and valuable thing to be guarded, like a diamond necklace in transit with a security guard. Why was a sprinkling of the patriarchy so good when it came to dating? I resented it. It was like good sea salt—just a tiny dash could really bring out the flavour of the date and it was so often delectable.
In the kebab shop, we ordered chips and we drowned our polystyrene containers in burger sauce. We established that we both suffered from condiment anxiety—a fear that the sauce will run out on the walk home. We found a bench, finished our chips, then we kissed some more. The kissing was rigorous and exhaustive—we encompassed every teenage tradition in our medley. There was neck-kissing and dry-humping and ear-nibbling. There were all the things we used to do to make just one thing—kissing—as exciting as possible, before the act of sex distracted us all.
“Your neck smells of bonfire,” I said, nuzzling into it.
“Yeah, it smells of burning leaves. I love it.”
“I built a bonfire a couple of days ago, I must have been wearing these clothes,” he said.
“No you didn’t.”
“I did, near the allotment.”
“Shut up,” I said, before kissing him some more.
We walked back up to the pub, now dark and locked up, and he stood by his bicycle, which was chained on the railing outside. He asked how I was getting back (bus) and told me to text him when I got home (another delicious patriarchy seasoning).
He unchained his bike, then turned to face me. “I’ve had a lovely night, Nina,” he said, and held my face in his hands as if it were as unexpected as a pearl in an oyster. “And I’m certain I’m going to marry you.”
He declared it quite plainly and without a note of sarcasm or comic hyperbole. He hoisted his bag over his shoulder and mounted his bicycle. “Bye.” He pushed off the pavement and cycled away.
And do you know, for about five minutes as I walked to the bus stop—I believed him.
Excerpted from Ghosts by Dolly Alderton. Copyright © 2021 by Dolly Alderton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.