common decency by susannah dickey front cover
Books

Book of the week: read an extract from Common Decency by Susannah Dickey

Stylist’s book of the week is Common Decency by Susannah Dickey. It tells the story of two young women, Lily and Siobhán, who live in the same apartment block in Belfast, and are both dealing with loneliness in very different ways.

She had actually met Siobhán three times already. The first time, she had approached her from behind. Siobhán was standing in the doorway of the building, looking out. Lily had at that point already lurked for too long in the stairwell, having watched Siobhán’s head bob down and around each landing, not wanting to risk the awkwardness of Siobhán turning around, spotting Lily looming above her like a buzzard over some carrion, of them having to exchange small talk from different vantage points. In the foyer, there was nowhere to go but forward, so she proceeded quietly, and then they were side by side, watching the December rain and the cars and the sporadic people, stationary and mobile. Siobhán’s head came up to Lily’s chin, and Lily tried to draw her arms into her torso to seem smaller.

‘It’s raining,’ Lily said, and Siobhán said, ‘Not even the rain has such small hands.’ She laughed brusquely, then drew her scarf over her head – it was thin, silky, maroon – and walked out. Her tan-coloured ankle boots had wide openings and no zips, and Lily wondered if they would fill with water, like novelty flowerpots.

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The second time they met was unavoidably in the stairwell. Lily was descending, Siobhán ascending. Before Siobhán looked up Lily watched the top of her head growing steadily in her field of vision, her centre parting and thick hair that fell in waves, its thickness such that it sat up from her scalp in a plume. Lily wondered if she ever worried about losing it, if she considered her beauty a fragile thing to be clung to as it risked erosion by time. She wondered if Siobhán worried about the precariousness of good things, and she felt an impulse to tell Siobhán about the time she had sinusitis for five days; how she sipped Sprite through a straw and whimpered at intervals like a lame sheep; how when it finally dissipated she vowed to never take a painless face for granted. She retreated into the banister and allowed Siobhán to pass. Her scarf this time had an art deco print, geometric zigzags overlaid with gold-beige deltas that matched the coppery strands of hair around her face. Without looking up, eyes fixed on her phone, Siobhán intoned,‘Thanks,’ to Lily’s feet. Lily glanced into the canvas tote bag suspended by one strap from Siobhán’s shoulder – it was filled with small, pale blue exercise books. Lily said, ‘No problem,’ and once past Siobhán said, ‘They could do with fixing that, couldn’t they?’ and gestured vaguely with her free hand at the flickering tube of electrical light protruding from the wall. Lily nodded, but Siobhán wasn’t looking. ‘Maybe I’ll email the estate agents,’ she muttered, then walked on. The bulb is still flickering, Morse-coding something indecipherable.

susannah dickey author
Susannah Dickey is the author of Common Decency and Tennis Lessons

The third time they met was last week. Siobhán was trying to forcibly inject her key into the crusty lock of her postbox. Lily wanted to tell her that sometimes it helps to jerk it once in an anticlockwise direction, then once in a clockwise, like starting a car. She said nothing. One of the ficus plants had a Santa hat perched on top – a lingering side effect of December. ‘The Venn diagram of days before Christmas and days after Christmas is a circle,’ her mother said once.

Siobhán rattled the key, swearing under her breath, then gave up. She began searching in her bag, and without looking up propelled herself forward. Her shoulder collided with Lily’s chest and Lily made an oooft noise.‘Oh God, sorry,’ Siobhán said. Lily said, ‘That’s all right,’ and Siobhán, still fixated on her bag, muttered, ‘One of those days,’ then performed an apologetic shrug with her shoulders. She disappeared into the stairwell and Lily stood, watching the spaces she no longer occupied.

‘Do you live in the building?’ Siobhán said as they exchanged the stairwell door. For a moment Lily said nothing. Clearly, Siobhán thought they were meeting for the first time. Lily’s cheeks went hot. To ascribe undue weight to an interaction is so much more shameful than to have forgotten the interaction, she realized. Forgetfulness is the luxury of a rich existence. She wanted to redress the balance. She wanted to say, ‘We’ve actually met multiple times,’ and for Siobhán to say,‘I’m so sorry it’s just—’, which Lily could interrupt with, ‘Personal occupation doesn’t absolve you of poor manners.’ She wanted Siobhán to blush, then apologize profusely, till her apologies reached the ceiling of their intensity, wilted under their own mass.

She said nothing, though, and nodded, and Siobhán said, ‘Me too. See you about.’ She commenced climbing the stairs, and Lily once again hung back, watching the muscles in Siobhán’s legs tauten and slacken in her tights as she ascended. Back in her flat, she took the caramel shortbreads from her bag and ate them without tasting.

Common Decency by Susannah Dickey (£14.99, Doubleday) is out now.

Author photo: James Dickey