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This Mediocre Life.

White blonde hair, red plump lips and a dress that swished and swayed around your knees. Killer calves. Round eyes and a button nose.

Perfection.

I was lost, watching you roll your shoulders to the music. Watching you mouth the words to a song I couldn’t even hear. The world had gone silent, everyone had disapered. Your beauty filled every corner of that tired old social club in the arse end of Hackney.

You saw me staring, I looked back down at my lap and fidgeted in my seat. I’d been caught. I thought about standing up and leaving out the back door before you accused me of being a pervert or some kind of peeping Tom.

As I was about to stand you sat next to me and asked, ‘is this the way to Amarillo?’ I said I wasn’t sure what or where it was you were looking for. I was about to offer you a London map that I carried in my pocket but you interrupted me with a laugh and a touch of my arm.

It felt like you’d set me on fire. Hot blood ran to my face and pumped my heart so hard I was sure you could hear it over the music.

“You’re funny.”

“Am I?” I said.

You sipped your drink, threw your head back and laughed again. I sat up straight, like I was taught to by my Gran. “Women don’t like men with hunches Harold.” She’d say.

“Relax,” you said. “It’s a party.” I let my shoulders drop slightly and my arms fell limp down my sides. You put your hand on my leg. My neck felt too fat for my top button and I couldn’t swallow. You tapped my leg three times and said: “Let’s dance.”

I tried to say no, I don’t dance. But you’d pulled me to my feet and were clicking and swishing and stepping in time to the music. I stepped from left to right, right to left. I didn’t dance. My feet didn’t understand music and beats and rhythm. I counted to 100. You must have seen the concentration on my face because you leant in and told me to smile. I forced a big toothy grin that no one would believe. There was no smile in my eyes, just panic and anxiety.

You’d dragged me outside when the song was over and the next one was kicking in. I was puppy on your leash. Unable to pull away.

“You smoke?”

“No,” I said.

“Mind if I do?”

“No.”

“So, how’d you know Shelia?” You put a cigarette between your painted red lips and lit it with a big orange flame.

“She’s my sister.”

“She didn’t tell me she had a brother.”

“I don’t live close. Out of sight, out of-“

“Yeah, I get it.” Like a dog with a bone you wouldn’t let the conversation stop. I was glad because I didn’t know what to say past ‘how are you’ and I thought we were over that point.

“I work with Shelia. Down at the Grand Hotel. We’re on reception together.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Worked together for a few months now. She never mentioned me?”

“We’re not close. I live far. In the country.”

“Come buy me a drink,” you said, stubbing your half smoked cigarette out on the wall and flicking it to the floor. I swallowed hard and loud, resisting the urge to pick up the butt and bin it. You pulled at my tie. “Come on. I want to hear all about Shelia’s mysterious brother.”

You ordered us both some kind of gin cocktail that I’d never heard of and told me I’d love it. I paid. £15.00. I never could get used to those city prices on a country wage.

We were worlds away.

You found us a table with four seats. I pulled out the chair to sit opposite but you patted the chair next to you.

“It’s too loud, I won’t hear you all the way over there.” I sat down and twirled the cocktail stick in my glass, knocking the ice cubes together, pushing the lime further down the glass. I dreaded drinking it, I hated Gin, it made me feel depressed.

“So,” you said. “Tell me about you.”

My mind went blank. Where did I start from? When I was born? It occurred to me then, I couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked me about me. I couldn’t remember anything about me.

“I’m Harold,” I said finally, crossing my arms.

“Hi Harold, I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you.” I put my hand out to shake yours as that felt like the right thing to do. You giggled, showing your brilliantly white, straight teeth and put your warm hand in mind.

We spoke for hours. Well you spoke. You told me about your travels to Mexico. Had I ever travelled you’d asked, I said does the train to London count. You laughed and moved on to your travels in America, back packing in Peru, parties in Thailand under the full moon. You were saving money from the hotel to go again, but to Europe this time. You said I should come.

That’s when I fell in love with you.

You were the other me. You were everything I wanted to be. But the whole time I was there with you, looking into your glassy brown eyes and the hair that kept falling across them, I was thinking about my train home. How good it would feel to shut out the party and be home. I tried to shake it off, enjoy being there, with you, learning about a life I couldn’t have.

After a four more Gin cocktails I was feeling heavy. You grabbed my hand that was limp on my lap and asked if I wanted to get out of here. I looked at my watch. It was 11pm, to get a full 8 hours sleep I had to be in bed asleep by 12. The hotel was 12 minutes walk. I told you I had to leave.

“Come on, Harold. Let’s live a little. You’ll sleep when you’re dead.” I thought about telling you that you sleep when you’re tired, or eventually you will in fact be dead. But, you were already up and putting on your long, mink coloured coat that enveloped your body perfectly.

That night was the best night of my life. I’ve lived 80 long years, and that was the best one of the lot.

We walked by the Thames, got a waffle from a stand that boasted a 2 star hygiene certificate, we got on a Rickshaw and we drank cheap wine from the bottle on tower bridge, watching the boats sail beneath us.

You leant your head on my shoulder and instinctively I put my arm around you, pulling you close. You said again that I should come visit Europe with you, see Paris. I hardly knew you. How could I travel Europe, leave my world and move into yours? I couldn’t see it working, so I said maybe, though I knew I meant no. All I wanted was to go with you.

We sat in an all-night café, you told me about Paris, Germany and Belguim. I listened, stiring 2 sugar cubes into my coffee. Three stirs left, four stirs right. But I kept forgetting the number of stirs because I was lost in your talk of Europe. When you couldn’t supress another yawn you said goodnight, kissing me firm on the lips. You were so warm. I wanted your face on my face forever.

You told me to ask Shelia for your number and we’d meet again next time I was in the city, or you’d come and try out country life. I knew I’d never ask Shelia. I knew that would be the last time I’d see you. I watched you leave in your long mink coat, buttoned to the top to keep the cold out.

Time passed, as it does, in days, weeks, months and years. I never called you. I went back to my life up in the north, drinking cheap pints, eating ready meals at 6.30pm and walking to the top of the hill  and back every morning.

Life was simple. I met Jane, a woman who lived down the road and we fell into something. She was plain too. She slotted perfectly into my life, so much that I hardly even noticed her. That was it for 50 years. She died and I still can’t notice that she is gone. Isn’t that terrible?

Did you see Paris? Did you travel the world? Or did you marry a Jane and get stuck in the wheel of mediocre life, or was that just me?

Some might be happy with the norm. The morning walk to the newspaper shop. The 10am coffee and two biscuits. The weekends in front of the telly. I thought I would be. But the whole time I’ve been looking for something else. Something more to set my blood on fire like you did that night we met.

Nothing has ever come close.

I’ve always had one eye open for it, but too afraid to investigate. Instead, I sit here, 80 years old, in a pair of slippers and a pipe at my lips, wondering how I’d look back at life now if I’d gone to Europe. If I’d let you drag me around on that leash forever.

Like they say, we only regret the things we didn’t do in the end. That age old cliché has never felt truer.

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Three’s a crowd- Extract

JESS

I’m packing up and I’m leaving. Leaving is final. Leaving will set me free.

I’m letting go of what was and what will never be again. I’m leaving because sometimes things can’t be fixed. Sometimes things are not broken, but shattered. Ever tried to glue back a shattered glass? Impossible.

I stand at the top of the stairs with my suitcases, a back pack and a Tesco bag stuffed with clothes. I wish I could walk out the door elegantly like they do in films but the bags are awkward. I want to take them all at once too. Going back up the stairs wouldn’t  give the drama I was hoping for. So, I stumble down the stairs, banging the cases on every step and ripping the wallpaper with the rucksack zips. The noise summons him out of the kitchen. He is cooking toast. How can he be hungry at a time like this? Is his heart not too broken to stomach food?

“You’re really going then?” He licks the peanut butter from the knife in his hand.

“What do you think?”

“Well you’ve got bags, so I guess you’re off. You want a slice of toast?”

“You insensitive shit. You don’t even care that I’m going, do you?”

“You won’t go. Or you will, but you’ll be back before I’ve finished my toast.”

“Watch me.” I try to comfortably pick up all the bags again and open the front door. It isn’t locked.

“You want a hand getting to the car with that lot?”

“Fuck you.” He licked the knife again.

“You’ll be back. See you in a week.”

How was he so sure I’d be back. Leaving this time meant leaving. I’d even packed my toothbrush, that’s how I knew it was for good. Last time I heard about him kissing some slut I did come back, yes. But that was different. This was an affair. This wasn’t something to forgive. That slut had been at my wedding, she’d got front row seats while had our first dance. The whole time she knew more about my husband than I did.

JAKE

I was cooking toast. I just fancied a bit of toast. It wasn’t trying to be an ‘insensitive shit’, I was hungry. She’d sprung the whole affair thing on my when I walked through the door, starving from a day at the office.

When I got home she was sat up straight on the edge of the brown cuddle chair. Her legs were crossed and her arms folded. I knew there was something wrong. I searched my mind and begged for it to be that I’d left the heating on all day, or she’d found out it was actually me who ran over the cats tail and cost us £200 in vets bills. Anything but her finding out about my other her.

“Who’s Jenny?”

“What do you mean who’s Jenny?” I said. My voice came out so high that it almost went through the roof.

“Jenny. Pub Jenny. The Cross Keys Jenny. The legs spread Jenny.” She uncrossed her legs, arms and ran at me like a spider. I dropped my bag on the floor to protect my face as she slapped me. It didn’t hurt. Jess is small and thin. “You’ve been shagging her, you shit.”

Busted. How could she know? I got the files out of my brain. The ones I’d logged under “how Jess could find out.” These were the options. Jenny told her. Luke, my best mate told her. She guessed because she was the one I never spoke about. She was tricking me.

Deny it all until proven guilty was my tactic.

“Where did you get this from?”

She stopped hitting me and breathlessly said, “she told me.” Back in the brain files I looked under “What to do if Jenny tells.”

“Jenny, you got this from Jenny?” I laughed. “She’s obsessed with me.” I grabbed her hands and looked into her eyes. “She won’t leave me alone, babe. She wants to break us up. She’s jealous.”

“You’re full of crap, Jake. She told me everything.” She wriggled her hands free and jabbed me in the shoulder with her sharp finger. “You know what, I believe her too. She knows too much.”

“Babe, she knows so much because she’s obsessed. Literally. Ask Luke.”

She shot off up the stairs crying. I didn’t chase her. Truth is I was shaking. My heart was bouncing about in my chest. I felt sick. I’d been caught and she wasn’t having my brain files of lies. She was on to me and my game was over.

Plan B. I act casual, like I’ve got nothing to hide. So, while she was upstairs banging about I splashed my face with cold water and I made a couple of slices of toast because I was hungry and eating calms you down.

JENNY

What did he expect me to do? Sit back and watch him have it all?

He pulls his pants back on and goes home to her while I go home to my roast dinner for one and the TV? Roast dinner for one is such a cliché too. God, I hated myself buying that. It’s not even easy to cook you know, part has to go in the oven, part in the microwave- the whole things gets right in the way of my programs.

So I told her. Stop judging me. I didn’t ruin a happy marriage. It wasn’t happy and it was ruined the day Jake started coming in the Keys.

I tried to stop, I did. I’m not a bad person. God, stop with the looks. Why is it that the other woman always gets the judgement- what about Jake, or even Jess? Clearly Jake wasn’t happy and Jess wasn’t giving him enough- frigid apparently.

I kind of always knew it would be me who told her. Anyway, I’d had enough of the sneaking around and he wasn’t going to get the ball rolling, not while he had his cake and he got to eat it too. And boy did he.

JESS

I got myself a little room in a hotel. It is nothing special, at thirty pounds  a night I wouldn’t expect much. Got to hand it to the cleaners though, the place is spotless. Towels are a little rough, but they dry you better so that’s okay.

I spruced up the room when I checked in, just to make sure the place shone and felt warmer, cosy and more like home. I added a few little touches, a picture of me and my sister for the bedside table and a bunch of daffodils in a mug on the windowsill.

It will do. I’m not ready to fight for the house, not yet. Though, he had been unfaithful so it was well within my rights to stay there and for him to go. I just don’t have the fight in me. I feel like a balloon that has been at a party too long, all shrivelled up and deflated.

I flick through the four channels on the TV. The hotel doesn’t have free view, or Wi-Fi, but it will do. The only thing on is a home show, I turn it off because it reminds me of where I am not.

My phone has messages on it from my sister but I still haven’t replied because I’m not sure how to tell her where I am. Why my life changed on a Friday afternoon.  I curl up into a ball and I fall asleep on top of the crispy hotel sheets and bobbly blankets. It is no Hilton, but it will do.

I wake up an hour later, a bit annoyed that more time hadn’t passed. Sleeping is the perfect way to waste time because you can’t think your normal thoughts when you are dreaming. I can’t think about him, or her. I can’t replay the moment she stood on my door step, straight faced. All I do is replay her words.

When I’m walking I say the words to the beat of my feet. I. Slept. With. Jake. I’m. Sor-ry.

Bitch.

My head is heavy from sleep, I need fresh air. I brush my hair into a low pony tail, slip on my shoes, grab my bag and leave my room.  Before my brain has time to think my feet have taken me outside to the car. I drive and find myself at my parent’s house. It’s time. It’s time they knew what perfect Jake has done to their daughter. It’s time they knew the truth. I look down at my arm, the scar is still there, but I don’t think I’ll tell them everything. One thing  at a time.

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Dan and Grace

DAN

I was feeling really low the morning I found out. I looked into my fag packet to see if I missed a bit of weed from last night. Jack sat down on the bench, next to me.

“Alright mate.” He passed me a fag, “you look like shit.”

“Cheers.”

“Where’s Craig?” He said.

“Dunno.”

“Ste?”

“Sold his phone.”

“Do you fancy a pint?”

“Only if you’re buying,” I said. ”I’m skint.”

“Well, Mum’s buying. Borrowed some money from the tin.”

“The Duke?”

The Duke was Stanhope Estates old pair of slippers, everyone loved it. You could go on your own and know there’d be someone to talk to, even if it was only the local homeless guy, Cow Boy Bill. I’d killed a few afternoons with that old bastard. The pub had everything you could need on a night out, pool table, Juke Box and a dealer in the toilet.

“You speak to Stace?” Jack said.

“All true mate.” Chewing gum stuck me and the 1970s carpet together.

“God, what you gunna do?”

“Get a job,” I said.

“Get a job! What with your qualifications?”

“Ste’s mum said she will get me in at the factory.”

“Packing boxes?”

“I gotta get something, can’t pay for a kid on Jobseekers.”

“Woah mate. Before you start dishing out money to that slag, check the kids yours.”

The barmaid ignored Jack tapping his tenner on the bar, she was texting. It was alright though because the more time she took the longer we could stare at her tits. They were begging to get out. She flicked her eyes behind her black rooted, blonde hair. “Yeah?” She said, chewing gum with her mouth open. She looked fierce, her eyes were too close together.

“You new?” Jack asked.

“Might be.”

“Fosters please, what you having Dan?”

“Same.” The new barmaid bent over to get two glasses. She had on those denim leggings which made girls arses look tip top. I turned to Jack who was ripping up a beer mat. “She promised it mine.”

“Come on mate, she’s had half of Banbury and the other half are women.”

“She’s had some of those too.”

“Exactly, get the test.” Jack said. “Cheers love. There you go.”

“Cheers. Baby or no baby, I got to get a job.”

“Can’t drink beer in the afternoon when you’ve a job mate.”

“Dads on my case, wants me to pay rent or move out.”

When I first told Dad about the baby he actually looked happy about it. He smiled like he had a coat hanger in his mouth. “Why are you smiling?” I said.

“You can get out of my hair now.”

“If you mean I can get a flat, I can’t.”

“You can, Sue’s boy got a right nice flat behind the chippy.”

“Yeah but me and Stace aren’t together. Can’t stand the girl.”

“Why’d you shag ‘er then?”

She had bleached blonde hair and blue eyes. She was a little too orange from fake tan but I dealt with it, we did it in the dark. Skinny waist and a pair of double D’s.  It was only a onetime thing. A drunken fumble at Darren’s twentieth birthday.  I didn’t want to stay with her for a whole list of reasons. One being that I knew what pregnancy would do to her body.  I didn’t want to get stuck with someone like Craig’s Mrs. She used to be a babe. Now she was left with corned beef thighs and scribbles all over her belly. I don’t think she knew there had been a change though. She still squeezed her muffin top into tiny jeans. No way was I going to get lumbered with that.

GRACE

Every Thursday I went to my mother’s for Book Club. We would drink tea from china cups and discuss the hidden meanings in Romeo and Juliette and other classics.  It was only a small book club. Jill, Pam, Sue and Leah as well as mum and I. We started it when my father died. Mother used to get lonely, that was why I moved back to town. Prior to my father’s death I worked in the City. Since his death my mother had aged dramatically and when she became unwell, I had no choice but to move back.

At the Book Club that day we were discussing the separation of the social classes in Victorian society and how it was presented in the literature of the time. Everyone presented some interesting theories about whether a class system exists today. The sessions were usually only two hours, however we often over ran into the early hours of evening.  I noticed my mother looking tired so I made sure that we finished on time, I didn’t like her to exhaust herself.

I prepared a light tea for the two of us while my mother sat at the dining table reading the novel we were set to discuss the in the following weeks.

“It’s really good you know,” she said. I laid her tea out in front of her.

“The book?”

“No, the Book Club. I manage to forget about your father for a whole afternoon and all it costs me is a pack of biscuits and the loan of my good china.” I remained silent. “You know what worries me though Grace, what happens when I can’t do it anymore.”

“You will always be able to do it, I help don’t I?”

“I know, that’s not what I mean Grace. I mean what happens when I’m too weak or the chemo has made me sick. What then?”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“What will I do, lay in bed and think of your father? Drive myself sicker with grief?”

“You know I’m here.”  After dinner I cleared up and changed her bed linen.

“Are you comfortable?” I said and patted her cushions. “Did you want another pillow?”

“No dear, you’ve done more than enough, go home now.”

“I’ll just make you a sandwich encase you get peckish later on.”

“You don’t want to be fussing around an old lady in the evenings. Have you not got any friends to be seeing?”

“Are you sure you will be okay.”

“Go home Grace.”

I took the short cut through Stanhope Estate with my doors locked, I had heard stories. I didn’t see him cross, my eyes were glazed over with tiredness.

DAN

One beer turned into one too many. I knew I’d get it in the neck from my dad. “Spending rent money on getting pissed. Blah, blah, blah.” I’d heard that speech so many times and still, it didn’t stop me. I knew I’d be out on my arse before long anyway. He gave me until I was 21 and I was getting close.

I’d been having a great time at the pub with Jack until Stacy’s hooker heeled mates came in. “Dan, you know it’s true right.” The tall one with the hook nose said.

“I know.” I said and tried to carry on my conversation with Jack.

“What you doing in ‘ere then?” Said another one, I ignored them.

“Shouldn’t you be spending money on nappies or somethin’?”

“Yeah Dan, you need to get your act together,” said Hook Nose. “No one fucks and chucks our girl.” I left when they started talking about what shits men are. Jack said he was staying out because he had seen someone who owed him money. Fine, I wanted to go home.

I was stumbling over to my street talking to myself.  I had my beer coat on so it didn’t really hurt when the car hit me. I threw up then it all went black. I’m not sure how long I was out for but when I woke up there was a lady crouching down next to me, wiping a hanky on my head.

“Oh thank heavens!” She said. She was pretty. That’s how I knew she came from off the Estate.  She had light blonde hair to her shoulders and it was tucked behind one ear. She bent over me I could see down her shirt. I reckoned she was a B cup.

“We need to get you to hospital, should I ring an ambulance?” She started dialling on her mobile.

“No.” I put my hand on her phone to stop her and she snatched it away. “I don’t need an ambulance.”

“You need stitches, you’re bleeding. Do you have any one to take you to hospital?”

“Just dad but he won’t.” She paused and took a deep breath.

“I’ll take you.” She put out her hand to help me up. I was still dizzy from the beer. She sat me in the passenger’s seat and even did up my belt. I could have done it myself but I liked the feel of her long fingers around my waist.  She didn’t talk much and sat rigid on her chair. I kept seeing her look at me out the corner of her eye.

“I’m not going to rob you,” I said.

“Keep the pressure on your head, I do not want blood on my seats.”

“Nice car this. Audi is it?”

“Yes.”

“TT is it?”

“Yes.”

“So you not from Stanhope, no hope?”

“No.”

“Jeeze. Not much of a conversationalist are you Darlin’.” She stiffened her arms on the steering wheel. “Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude.”

“I’m still in shock from running you over,” she said, finally.

“You only scratched me, I’ve had worse.”

“Worse?”

“Yeah, I had three guys on me once, kicked the shit out of me. What you did was nothing.”

“Do you want to call your mother?”

“Don’t have one.” She had nothing to say to that. I liked it when she spoke, she had a soft voice. “Well I’ve got one, somewhere. She had it off with Mr Sykes from the laundrette. They’ve done one up North.”

GRACE

When I first hit him I thought that maybe it was one of those tricks to get you out the car and then a whole gang of them rob you. I’d seen it on the News. So I stayed in the car for a few minutes until I started to panic that maybe I had killed him.  He was bleeding from the head, unconscious.  He woke up when I applied pressure to his head wound. The devil was on his breath, as my mum would say.

He was a young man, about twenty. He was sporting a little bit of stubble, he had panther black hair and thick dark eye lashes to match. I had heard about people from Stanhope, most of them jobless, living off taxes. I guessed this applied to him because he was drunk on a Thursday.

“What’s your name anyway?” He said

“Grace,”

“I’m Dan. Danny. Daniel, whatever.”

“I like Daniel.”

“Well I’m Daniel then.”

“Tell me if you feel dizzy or sick again.”

“Yes boss.” He scared me at first. His voice was too loud, too common. I winced every time he dropped a T. “So where is it you’re from?” He saw me hesitate. “I’m not going to come round and steal your pearls.”

“I live in Great Chart.”

“Well I guess you know where I’m from.”

“Stanhope?”

“Born and bred.” He turned in his seat. His stare pierced through me.

“Stop staring at me please,” I said.

“You’re worth staring at.”

“You’re distracting me.”

“With my good looks and charm?”

“No, because you are staring at me. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

“Don’t get to distracted darlin’, wouldn’t want you knocking anybody else down. I can’t be sharing my hanky, or you neither.”

“How much did you have to drink?” I said ignoring his comment. “The doctor will ask you know.”

“Couple.”

“You smell like you have had more.”

“Drowning my sorrows.”

“Sorrows?”

“Don’t matter. You want to come in and watch me get stitched?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve got an early start.”

“What do you do anyway, you know for a job?”

“I’m a carer.”

“Not very caring, a hit and run is it?”

“Hit and run? I am taking you to the hospital.”

“I could press charges you know.”

“Are you blackmailing me?”

“Not blackmailing, not in a kill your cat and post it to you kind of way. Just want you to come in.”

“I think you’re big enough, you don’t need me to hold your hand.”

“It would be great though, if you would.” He said. “We could drink coffee, that bin juice stuff.”

“Sounds like my perfect evening,” I said.

“While we are in there we could see about getting that stick removed from your arse.” I looked at him with wide eyes and let out a little gasp.

“I do not have a stick up my arse, thank you very much.”

“You could just do with a good time I reckon. I could be the one to give it to you.”

“Bin juice coffee isn’t really my idea of a great time thanks.”

“Come over to the dark side for the night. I’ll look like I’ve won the lottery with a bird like you on my arm.” I felt bad for him, he appeared desperate not to be alone.

“Okay,” I said. “I will come in, only because it is my fault you here. And only on one condition.”

“Name your terms.”

“You don’t call me Bird.”

“Deal.” We pulled up outside the hospital. I caught a glimpse of my tired reflection in the rear view mirror, suitcases hung under my eyes and my hair needed a comb through.

“You get out,” I said. “I’ll see you inside.” I thought it would buy me some time to apply a little make up, not so much that he would notice just cover up the bags. I didn’t want him thinking that I was making an effort for him, of course I wasn’t.

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What I do since you left.

I’ve started writing shit poems. Ones full of clichés and rhyming couplets. They make me feel sick. They make me cry. What does it matter, I’m sick and sad anyway so might as well get something out of it, eh?

I spend my evenings thinking about how we danced the funky chicken at party’s way back then. How you told me I was too old for you, every day. I don’t think about the time you screamed at me in the street because I told you I wasn’t ready for fatherhood, or how you ignored me for a week because I reversed the car over the cat. A broken tail, I got it fixed.

I stroke your cardigan. That God awful one you called your house coat but still wore outside. I look at the smudge of nail varnish on the pocket- you never could wait for them to dry. But, the way I spend most of my day is by putting away your things, realising how sad and shit and dark it is without them, and taking it all back out. That’s what I do. I look at everything over and over, I feel it, I smell it. There’s this slipper, still got the indent of your foot in it but I can’t find the other. I spend so much time staring at that slipper, searching for its other half, do you know where it is?

Remember those stars that used to hang from the ceiling, you know the ones, I said that they’d be the first thing to go if you did. I get tangled up in them just like before. Sometimes I walk into them on purpose, curse you and the hanging stars and feel better for a second. I know, I hated them but now, now they are beautiful because they are so very you. I’m sentimental. I’m writing soppy poetry and crying at the news.

I don’t let the girls come to visit unless I’ve had enough notice. It’s a good afternoon’s work to get it all away again. If I come across the slipper it can take me two days, I get side tracked and frustrated and have to have a drink. If the girls caught me doing what I do they’ll think that I need to see someone. I think I do.

In the evenings sometimes I can’t get off the phone, people who never called call me weekly. To make me feel better? or to make themselves feel better? I’m not sure which.

I try to ask questions, let others do the talking so that I don’t have to admit my sorry old life to anyone who doesn’t really care, someone who is just calling to fill a spare bit of time. I’ve got all the questions to keep them busy talking, if I ever have to answer that dreaded question, “You been getting out?” I say, the park, I go on bike rides to get the paper, feed the ducks with stale bread and think about getting a dog. I tell them that every Tuesday and Saturday I go to the supermarket, there’s a quiz at the Nags Head on Wednesday.

Truth. Since you left, I’ve been out once. To the supermarket, that big one with roll back as their motto. There were so many kids in there, snotty and screaming, wearing no shoes. I liked the one we used to go in together but I thought I might break down in the bakery aisle. I’m not ready to face those cream puffs in the red and white cases just yet.

In the supermarket, I didn’t know what to buy. I brought rice and pasta along with back up ready meals, beer and vodka- you never let me have vodka. The rice was crunchy and the pasta fell apart. Good intensions but now I’m surviving on my back up, back log of ready meals. They’re salty and I don’t like it. On those dark nights, when I close the curtains and drink vodka on ice I have two of the meals. Too cowardly to do something drastic, I decide to let the salt take its toll on my heart.

The little one came round to visit and gave me a lecture about the salt- wearing her hair pinned, a pair of chinos and a shirt. My God, she could have been you 20 years back. She brought me a parsnip soup. It was thick and chunky and I didn’t know how to get rid of it without having to eat it. I blocked the sink and still haven’t had it fixed. I wash up in the bath until I can find where you kept the yellow pages, maybe they’re with your slipper, maybe your slipper is acting as a bookmark for something you needed in the yellow pages, do you remember?

When the little one came round, we talked about you, of course and we laughed at how you got drunk at Christmas and put the cheese board in the microwave and filled the tea pot up with coffee. The older one has been round too. She’s sad, of course and she misses you being but she needed to talk about her problems and I liked it. She always was a daddy’s girl. She’s fighting with Liam again and that was all she could talk about it and it was a nice change. Although, the whole time she was there, talking about Liam and how she was thinking about leaving him I was thinking about you. I tried not to, I needed a break from my thoughts but this one just crept in. I thought about that time when you said, “if it gets any worse I’m leaving.” I begged you to stay and you said I’d have to come round to it when the time comes. You gave me your wedding ring and promised I’d cope alone. I told you I couldn’t cook and you laughed and told me I’d survive on ready meals, but you said that I’d need to make sure I watch the salt. I gave you your ring back and we cuddled in front of the box.

When the older one said, “dad, are you listening?” I said yes and then she carried on telling me what he had been doing. I’ve never liked Liam and I told her. I told her she should be with someone who makes you laugh even when things are shit, when there’s no money in the bank and bills to pay. And she said, “So you want me to find someone like mum.”

I said, “if you find someone like your mum introduce me, I’m going spare, make sure she’s better looking than your mum though, want to trade up.” She got up, kissed me on the head and told me she had to go.

The phone rings on Tuesdays at 6, and Fridays at 5. Those are the days we agreed on you calling, the nurses wrote it in your diary and remind you an hour before. I watch the phone ring, imagine you sitting on the other end with your crochet blanket over your knees, shivering and bony and grey, surrounded by others just the same. I can’t pick up. I freeze. I cry.

You’re not who you were. You’re not the same person who used to paint her nails every night and pick up the fish and chips on a Friday, call me a tight bastard and laugh at my jokes. That’s not you anymore, you are not mine anymore. You belong to them now, and you’ve got to accept it. You told me that I had to let you leave if the time came and that I’d cope. I’m trying to; I’m trying so hard to move on.

I’ve got in the car a couple of times, got the map out of how to come and visit you. I never get as far as turning the key. I feel sick and my head hurts, I go lie down. I’m punishing myself because I know times a healer and if I see you all the pain that’s getting easier will just get hard again and I’m afraid of what I’ll do.

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The Test of a Good Woman

  I believe you shouldn’t judge a woman by the way she looks, smells, or wears her hair. Yeah, okay so all that is important- I’m not after a troll who smells like a trucker- but I think you can tell all you need to know about a woman by what she eats, how she eats. I’ve been on a lot of dates, and this isn’t me bragging clearly I’m no good at it after 34 long years of being single, but I’ve always had a keen eye for knowing what women are really like behind that first date smile. I cant tell from the moment I see them, but from the moment I see what they order.

Take Sue. Sue was a red haired, fiery woman in a tight dress and thick heels. I met Sue in a club and told her I’d take her out after a few Martinis. I liked the way she flicked her tongue round her straw and tried to catch it in her mouth. Sue smoothed her Lycra skirt to her bare thighs and sat, with her spine curved at the bottom, on the chair. Her necklace hung low, a locket, and if things went well at dinner I was planning on asking to see inside it. She circled her shoulders in time with the music and held the menu in both hands. The waiter came and she peered over the top of the menu, winked at me and said, “I’ll have the oysters.” Looking at me the whole time she ordered. I don’t have to spell it out, she knew what she wanted and I like that. I also like a woman who can order and order well. Oysters are good on any occasion, on your own on a Friday night even, and if what they say is true then even better with someone else. I ordered a light soup, simple and easy, a classic.

                Sue started off impressively and I really thought I might get to know what was in the locket, somewhere I hadn’t got in years. I froze to watch her take the fish, hoping that she didn’t fail at the first hurdle. Her thick eye lashes were spread like spider’s legs and her pupils round and dark between them, not looking away as she pulled the oyster closer to her lips. Her red, thick lips. She scooped under to loosen the flesh from the shell and sucked. The noise echoed through the entire room, shaking the pictures on the wall and I’m sure I heard a mirror crack. After what seemed like 20 minutes of slurping and staring she’d sucked it all in. Then she chewed. Sloppy, mouth open along with heavy breathing, worn out from shoulder dancing I guess. I looked down into my asparagus soup and weighed up the pros of drowning myself in it.

Hannah was sweet. I met her on the sea front; she worked on the ice cream parlour and served me a 2 scoop of rum and raison for the price of one. Maybe her mum had told her that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I picked her up in my duck egg mini. I always drive; I don’t cloud my judgement with drink. Concentrating on every mouthful they take requires a clear head. I got carried away once with a woman a few years back, ended up drinking a couple of bottles of wine with her. I thought she was the one. In the meal I must have missed crucial signs or just let them go because after the 2nd bottle she burped right in my face. From then on I’ve always driven. Hannah kept tucking her hair behind her ears, even when it was already there. She pursued her lips and looked up at me over the menu, but when I made eye contact she looked away and giggled. I ordered fizzy water on ice and she followed suit. When the waiter came Hannah gestured towards me to order first and said the dreaded words, “I’ll have what you’re having.” I ordered the hottest curry on the menu and watched her sweat and sniff with every mouthful.

Sharron, or Shaz as she liked to be called worked at the supermarket. She made me laugh when she came up behind me and said, “You going to pay for that you thieving bastard.” When I turned around she had her hand covering her mouth, as red as onions. “Oh, God, I thought you were someone else,” she said.  She put her arm around my wrist and begged me not to tell customer services that she’d called me a bastard. I agreed as long as she came on a date with me. She was a big girl with a pretty, sweet face. Thin red lips, big blue eyes and blonde hair shaped to her round face. At dinner she wore jeans, heels and a top which was floaty and forgiving. She ordered her own drink, a large Nantua Les Deux- a complex and buttery wine. I knew she had good taste.  Then she ordered the food, “I’ll have the avocado salad please. No sides thank you.” How could such a good wine order go with such a terrible food order. I must have paused mouth open for a moment or two because the waiter had to call me twice. “And for you, Sir?” he said. “Sir?” I ordered the Chicken in a soft cheese sauce, with a side of vegetables and new potatoes.

When the waiter packed up his note pad and left, she said: “It’s a gland problem, my weight. I eat light.” I laughed and said something vaguely sympathetic, “my sister suffers with that too”. Don’t get me wrong, I would have believed her if it hadn’t been that when I dropped my napkin I noticed two chocolate wrappers in her open bag, and what I had thought had been a mole on her face began to look more and more like Cadburys. I don’t date liars.

Jane. If I was one of those men who judge a woman by her name I wouldn’t have bothered with Jane. I’d known her years, we worked together, drank coffee together, filed stuff together, then I bumped into her in town and we got talking.

On our date she had her hair to her shoulders and flat to her head. She wore jeans and a white shirt with a pair of black boots. She ordered a white wine and she didn’t mind which- I think she chose the cheapest. Out of work and worried that I’d ask her to split the bill. She took her time over the menu, really analysed it as though it was important data and we were at a meeting. The conversation flowed well as we spoke about people who we used to know, where they were now, where we were now. The waiter came over, smartly dressed with a napkin tucked into his belt. She smiled at him and closed the menu in front of her. “Please may I have the chicken in a white wine sauce but without the sauce.” Her order was dry chicken and boiled potatoes with no butter. It was dry and plain. If I’d have judged her by her clothes or her name then I could have saved myself three hours of my life listening to the plainness of hers. She’d never even been on holiday and stopped after one glass of wine because of a fear of getting drunk.

Tina was a food critic, so I let her pick the place. She said she wanted to try out a new Thai restaurant uptown.  She sat straight like she was balancing books on her head, wearing a tight black dress to her knees, low cut at the back. Tina had short black hair and thin red lips painted with bright red. She inspected the cutlery and wiped it over with her napkin. When she eventually had cleaned everything on the table she opened to the wine. She curled her lip and flared her nostrils at the list. “Oh I guess we will have to have the Belondrade y Lrton, it’s the only half decent one on here.” When the young Spanish waiter came to tell us that they were out of Belondrade y Lurton Tina’s lips went even thinner. “What kind of establishment is this? Why don’t you just tell me what to have rather than me even look at the menu.” The waiter hung his head and apologised but she didn’t stop. “Oh stop with your sorry mams, please. I would have thought a place like this would have a proper waiter not some spotty teen saving for his first car. Please, bring me the manager.” Then I got an emergency phone call and dove out of the restaurant.

That was how I met Lucy. I bumped in to her as I was running out of the resturant, half expecting Tina to chase me with a well polished knife. 

“Watch it,” she said. Coffee all over her parker. I tried to rub her down but it meant touching her breast and she didn’t take well to that one.  “Where you going in such a rush?” she said.

“Bad date.”

“Did you throw a coffee over her too?”

I laughed, “Let me buy you a coffee, please to make up for this one.”

“You don’t hang about, straight back on the bandwagon, you get knocked down, you get right back up,” she said.

“Well you know, can’t hang about. At my age most the good ones are taken.” Hannah looked young under the street lamp in her 20’s I guessed. She had soft blonde hair, flowing over the hood of her coat. I could see her hot breath in the cold night and she was shivering a little.

                “Don’t want coffee though, I’m starving. You can buy me a burger instead.”

“Alright, know any good burger places?”

“All stop serving at 10, ‘cept that burger van.”

“Bit cold though, isn’t it.” I know it was forward, I rubbed her arms to try and warm her, it just felt like something I should do.

“It’s alright, there’s a wind shelter over there.”

 We ate burger and chips together on a bench. We sat close to each other to keep warm, our thighs touching. She got sauce on her face and didn’t get embarrassed about it, she wiped it away and we moved on. She chewed with her mouth closed, and covered her mouth when she laughed. She was a casual diner, cool and easy to please, she was herself. That was how I met Lucy.

 

 

 

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