The perils of Friday night drinks

An unconvicing take on the office romance.

Tom is quite a bloke. He has never met a girl yet that he couldn't make chuck him by means of passive resistance, "like a romantic Gandhi". We gain privileged insight into this miracle of unreconstructed maleness through his asides, when we are invited to be co-conspirators in his puerile, even murderous imaginings: he tells us confidentially that he understands the mentality of the sex killer, and can "see the appeal of hacking them to pieces and putting them in bin-bags afterwards."

It's fair to say that I didn't exactly warm to the hero of My Romantic History (played by Iain Robertson), though many in the audience at the Birmingham Repetory studio theatre found the disparity between his inner voice and his public one quite hilarious. Fortunately, if belatedly, some 35 minutes into the show, we are then given access to the inner thoughts of the object of his musings, Amy from the office (Alison O'Donnell). Events are replayed from her perspective, and she proves to be every bit as unconvinced and even disgusted by the relationship as Tom. "He smells like bums" is her comment on waking up with him.

Playwright D C Moore sketches a familiar breed with the male commitment-phobe (it's Friends, by way of Peep Show out of High Fidelity), but in comparison, Amy's motivations seem both obscure and contrived. She's apparently dating him ("like fucking Americans") to prove to her co-worker that she can. But there is comedy capital to be made all the same from the unreliability of perspective: Amy recalls things in a rather different way from Tom. Speeches are attributed to different people, and the emphasis of scenes subtly shifts. Her recollection of his chat is along the lines of "blah blah blah, pretty serious about my music back then, blah". And nowhere is Tom and Amy's view more faulty and corrupted than the retrospectives on their first loves, the idealisation of which scuppers their chances of present day romance.

Nominally an office rom-com, My Romantic History doesn't, in truth, explore the office environment except to give the play an appealingly quirky setting, courtesy of designer Chloe Lamford. The office notice board gradually becomes a scrapbook collage of former loves and significant articles, like the Polaroid of a tattoo, or the manga cartoon of boyfriends past. An ancient slide projector is recommissioned to give low-tech, nostalgic presentations on the couple's love affairs, and the filing cabinet does a turn as portal to an outside world - at one point beautifully illustrating Tom's depressing ubiquity, as he appears to teleport in from various locations holding by turns coffee cup, lunch-tray and a clutch of photocopies.

Cardboard boxes are stacked to vertiginous heights; some are suspended from the ceiling, and jettison objects relating to the romantic narratives - a Magic Tree car freshener here, or a phone there. Lamford's ingenious crates suggest not only memory storage, but also a feel of pro tem making- do, and of movement between places. As the play states repeatedly, nothing lasts for ever, and it's as if Tom and Amy's relationship, by rights a throwaway and short-lived affair, has been accidentally given a lamination job and acquired a habit-hardened carapace of permanence, through motives ranging from cowardice to inertia.

Moore's office is a workless and, it must be said, joyless place, with none of the camaraderie, intimacy or shared experience that make the office such fertile ground for colleague-coupling. Amy and Tom's liaison is a purely contingent one, an anthropological likelihood based on sharing the same space. The doubling up of roles only serves to emphasise its arbitrary nature: Robertson and O'Donnell, clad in the cheap suits of junior office staff - all crackling polyester and sensible shoes - jump nimbly in and out of roles as they supply the bit parts in each other's drama. In this they are abetted by a protean Rosalind Sydney, whose main part is awful colleague Sasha, with her moon cups and her Sunday samba drumming.

But where the relationship between the lovers may be bloodless to the point of being perfunctory, under Lindsey Turner's direction the actors generate a real and unexpected warmth with a challengingly small audience. This adds considerable charm to a light-hearted memo on the ways in which we settle for each other, our partial takes on past and present, and the perils of Friday night drinks. Like a day at the office, there are lots of shared jokes, and it is a little too long.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear