How could one say with any certainty what one hated most in the world? It surely depended on how proximate the hated thing was at any given moment, whether you were doing it or listening to it or eating it at the time. She hated teaching Agatha Christie for A level, she hated any Conservative education secretary, she hated listening to her younger son’s trumpet practice, she hated any kind of liver, the sight of blood, reality TV shows, grime music, and the usual abstractions—global poverty, war, pandemics, the imminent death of the planet, and so on. But they weren’t happening to her, apart from the imminent death of the planet, and even that was only imminent. She could afford not to think about them quite a lot of the time. Right now, at 11:15 on a cold Saturday morning, the thing she hated most in the world was queuing outside the butcher’s while listening to Emma Baker going on about sex.
She had been trying to move out of Emma’s orbit for a while, but the movement was imperceptible, and would, she guessed gloomily, take another four or five years yet. They had met when their children were small and went to the same playgroup; dinners were offered and reciprocated and offered again. The children were more or less the same, then. They hadn’t developed personalities, really, and their parents hadn’t yet decided what kind of people they were going to be. Emma and her husband had chosen private primary education for theirs, and as a direct consequence, Lucy’s boys found them insufferable. Social interaction eventually stopped, but you couldn’t do much about living near someone, shopping in the same places.She had been trying to move out of Emma’s orbit for a while, but the movement was imperceptible, and would, she guessed gloomily, take another four or five years yet.
It was a particular stage of the queuing that she hated: the point at which one was right outside the door, kept shut in winter, and one had to decide whether there was room inside the shop. Go in too early and you had to squash up against somebody while running the risk of anxious queue-jump faces; too late and somebody behind would toot her, metaphorically, for her timidity. There would be a gentle suggestion, a “Do you want to…” or a “There’s room in there now, I think.” That was what it was like: pulling out at an intersection that required aggression. She didn’t mind being tooted when she was driving, though. She was separated from other drivers by glass and metal, and they were gone in a flash, never to be seen again. These people were her neighbors. She had to live with their nudges and disapproval every Saturday. She could have gone to a supermarket, of course, but then she would be Letting Local Shops Down.
And in any case the butcher was just too good, so she was willing to spend the extra. Her sons ate neither fish nor vegetable, and she had reluctantly decided that she probably did care about them ingesting antibiotics, hormones, and other things in cheaper meat that might one day turn them into female Eastern European weightlifters. (If they chose to become female Eastern European weightlifters one day, however, she would fully endorse and embrace their decision. She just didn’t want to impose that destiny upon them.) Paul helped with the boys’ beef habit. He wasn’t mean about money. He felt guilty about everything. He kept enough to live on, if that, but gave her the rest.
The tricky in‑or‑out part was probably another ten minutes away, though. The expense and the quality were attractive to the residents of this particular London borough, so the queues were long, and the customers took their time once they had forced their way inside. Emma Baker’s obsession with sex was happening right here, right now, and it was intolerable.
“You know what? I envy you,” she said.
Lucy didn’t reply. Terseness was her only weapon. From the outside it probably looked useless, because the words would keep coming, but any attempt to answer the question would result in an unstoppable torrent.
“You’re going to have sex with someone you’ve never had sex with before.”
This didn’t seem particularly enviable to Lucy, in the sense that if it happened, it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. It was, after all, a future open to most able-bodied people in the world, whether they chose to exploit the opportunity or not. But Lucy’s single status drew Emma back to the same subject over and over again. For Emma, married for many years to a man whose inadequacies, in the bedroom and in every other room, she made no attempts to hide or defend, divorce meant sex—paradoxically and/or idiotically, Lucy thought, seeing as her experience of it to date was that it meant no sex. In other words, Lucy’s single status provided a screen on which Emma could project endless fantasies.
“What are you looking for? In a man?”
Either in real life or in Lucy’s head the queue had become stiller.
“Nothing. I’m not.”
“So what’s the point of tonight?”
The answers told a very small part of a very long story. Indeed, the words “nothing,” “not,” and “point” could even have been plucked at random from a very long story by some kind of textual artist, in order to convey a meaning ironically at odds with the storyteller’s intention.
“Hygiene,” said Lucy suddenly.
“That’s what I’m looking for.”
“Come on, girl. You can ask for more than that.”
“Hygiene is important.”
“You don’t want handsome? Or funny? Or rich? Or good in bed? Someone with a penis that never lets him down? Someone who loves to give oral sex?” Behind them, somebody sniggered. Since the rest of the queue was by now entirely silent, there was a very good chance that Emma had been the trigger for the sniggers.
Again, a very short answer that didn’t tell the whole truth, or any part of it.
“Well, that’s what I’d go for.”
“I’m learning more about David than I want to know.”
“He’s clean, at least. He smells like James Bond most of the time.”
“Well, there you go. He has none of the things you’re telling me to look for, and you’re still with him.”
Now she came to think about it—and she hadn’t really thought about it until earlier on that week—hygiene was more important than just about any other quality she could think of. Imagine that Emma were in a position to provide a potential partner who possessed every single idiosyncrasy and attribute that she wanted—or, at least, those that Lucy could think of, now, on the spot, in the queue for the butcher’s, when she didn’t even know what to say. Imagine that this unlikely man loved fresh flowers and the films of Asghar Farhadi, that he preferred cities to the countryside, that he read fiction—proper fiction, not novels about terrorists and submarines—that, yes, he enjoyed both giving and receiving oral sex, that he was kind to her sons, that he was tall, dark, handsome, solvent, funny, clever, liberal, stimulating.
So this guy turns up to whisk her away to dinner somewhere quiet and smart and fashionable, and she notices straight away that he smells awful. Well, that would be the end of it, wouldn’t it? Nothing else would be of any use whatsoever. Bad hygiene trumped everything. So did unkindness, criminal records for—or even merely rumors of—domestic violence, and unacceptable views on race. Oh, and a dependency on drink and drugs, although that went without saying, given everything that had happened. The absence of key negatives was much more important than any positive.
Lucy noted glumly that they were approaching the crunch. It was chaos in there, she could see. There was a double queue that now stopped at the far end of the shop, so it wasn’t simply a question of finding enough room just inside the door. Just inside the door was where those in the middle of the queue were standing, the U‑bend in the snake, so in order to join the back of the queue one had to push one’s way through the crowd—and it was beginning to resemble a crowd, rather than a line—thus causing even more stress to both the pusher and the pushed.
“I think we can both get in there,” said Emma.
“There’s hardly room for one,” said Lucy.
“I think you can probably get in there,” said the woman behind them.
“I was just saying to my friend we can’t,” said Lucy sharply.
A couple emerged from the shop with groaning white plastic bags containing hunks of bloody meat that, if consumed over the next seven days, would make them seriously ill with heart disease and bowel cancer, and shorten the queue the following week.
Emma opened the door and went in.
“You let her in the queue,” said the woman behind.
Lucy had forgotten that.
“And now she’s inside and you’re not.”
There was a metaphor in there somewhere.
Excerpted from Just Like You by Nick Hornby. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books.