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Beautiful World, Where Are You
Author: Sally Rooney

Beautiful World, Where Are You

‘When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.’

—Natalia Ginzburg, ‘My Vocation’ (trans. Dick Davis)

1

A woman sat in a hotel bar, watching the door. Her appearance was neat and tidy: white blouse, fair hair tucked behind her ears. She glanced at the screen of her phone, on which was displayed a messaging interface, and then looked back at the door again. It was late March, the bar was quiet, and outside the window to her right the sun was beginning to set over the Atlantic. It was four minutes past seven, and then five, six minutes past. Briefly and with no perceptible interest she examined her fingernails. At eight minutes past seven, a man entered through the door. He was slight and dark-haired, with a narrow face. He looked around, scanning the faces of the other patrons, and then took his phone out and checked the screen. The woman at the window noticed him but, beyond watching him, made no additional effort to catch his attention. They appeared to be about the same age, in their late twenties or early thirties. She let him stand there until he saw her and came over.

Are you Alice? he said.

That’s me, she replied.

Yeah, I’m Felix. Sorry I’m late.

In a gentle tone she replied: That’s alright. He asked her what she wanted to drink and then went to the bar to order. The waitress asked how he was getting on, and he answered: Good yeah, yourself? He ordered a vodka tonic and a pint of lager. Rather than carrying the bottle of tonic back to the table, he emptied it into the glass with a quick and practised movement of his wrist. The woman at the table tapped her fingers on a beermat, waiting. Her outward attitude had become more alert and lively since the

man had entered the room. She looked outside now at the sunset as if it were of interest to her, though she hadn’t paid any attention to it before. When the man returned and put the drinks down, a drop of lager spilled over and she watched its rapid progress down the side of his glass.

You were saying you just moved here, he said. Is that right?

She nodded, sipped her drink, licked her top lip.

What did you do that for? he asked.

What do you mean?

I mean, there’s not much in the way of people moving here, usually. People moving away from here, that would be more the normal thing. You’re hardly here for work, are you?

Oh. No, not really.

A momentary glance between them seemed to confirm that he was expecting more of an explanation. Her expression flickered, as if she were trying to make a decision, and then she gave a little informal, almost conspiratorial smile.

Well, I was looking to move somewhere anyway, she said, and then I heard about a house just outside town here – a friend of mine knows the owners. Apparently they’ve been trying to sell it forever and eventually they just started looking for someone to live there in the meantime. Anyway, I thought it would be nice to live beside the sea. I suppose it was a bit impulsive, really. So— But that’s the entire story, there was no other reason.

He was drinking and listening to her. Toward the end of her remarks she seemed to have become slightly nervous, which expressed itself in a shortness of breath and a kind of self-mocking expression. He watched this performance impassively and then put his glass down.

Right, he said. And you were in Dublin before, was it?

Different places. I was in New York for a while. I’m from Dublin, I think I told you that. But I was living in New York until last year.

And what are you going to do now you’re here? Look for work or something?

She paused. He smiled and sat back in his seat, still looking at her.

Sorry for all the questions, he said. I don’t think I get the full story yet.

No, I don’t mind. But I’m not very good at giving answers, as you can see.

What do you work as, then? That’s my last question.

She smiled back at him, tightly now. I’m a writer, she said. Why don’t you tell me what you do?

Ah, it’s not as unusual as that. I wonder what you write about, but I won’t ask. I work in a warehouse, outside town.

Doing what?

Well, doing what, he repeated philosophically. Collecting orders off the shelves and putting them in a trolley and then bringing them up to be packed. Nothing too exciting.

Don’t you like it, then?

Jesus no, he said. I fucking hate the place. But they wouldn’t be paying me to do something I liked, would they? That’s the thing about work, if it was any good you’d do it for free.

She smiled and said that was true. Outside the window the sky had grown darker, and the lights down at the caravan park were coming on: the cool salt glow of the outdoor lamps, and the warmer yellow lights in the windows. The waitress from behind the bar had come out to mop down the empty tables with a cloth. The woman named Alice watched her for a few seconds and then looked at the man again.

So what do people do for fun around here? she asked.

It’s the same as any place. Few pubs around. Nightclub down in Ballina, that’s about twenty minutes in the car. And we have the amusements, obviously, but that’s more for the kids. I suppose you don’t really have friends around here yet, do you?

I think you’re the first person I’ve had a conversation with since I moved in.

He raised his eyebrows. Are you shy? he said.

You tell me.

They looked at one another. She no longer looked nervous now, but somehow remote, while his eyes moved around her face, as if trying to put something together. He did not seem in the end, after a second or two, to conclude that he had succeeded.

I think you might be, he said.

She asked where he was living and he said he was renting a house with friends, nearby.

Looking out the window, he added that the estate was almost visible from where they were sitting, just past the caravan park. He leaned over the table to show her, but then said it was too dark after all. Anyway, just the other side there, he said. As he leaned close to her their eyes met. She dropped her gaze into her lap, and taking his seat again he seemed to suppress a smile. She asked if his parents were still living locally. He said his mother had passed away the year before and that his father was ‘God knows where’.

I mean, to be fair, he’s probably somewhere like Galway, he added. He’s not going to turn up down in Argentina or anything. But I haven’t seen him in years.

I’m so sorry about your mother, she said.

Yeah. Thanks.

I actually haven’t seen my father in a while either. He’s— not very reliable.

Felix looked up from his glass. Oh? he said. Drinker, is he?

Mm. And he— You know, he makes up stories.

Felix nodded. I thought that was your job, he said.

She blushed visibly at this remark, which seemed to take him by surprise and even alarm him. Very funny, she said. Anyway. Would you like another drink?

After the second, they had a third. He asked if she had siblings and she said one, a younger brother. He said he had a brother too. By the end of the third drink Alice’s face looked pink and her eyes had become glassy and bright. Felix looked exactly the same

as he had when he had entered the bar, no change in manner or tone. But while her gaze increasingly roamed around the room, expressing a more diffuse interest in her surroundings, the attention he paid to her had become more watchful and intent. She rattled the ice in her empty glass, amusing herself.

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