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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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I regret everything.

Everything, includes the following.

  1. Eating the third slice of double chocolate gateau at your leaving party and ruining my diet that I’d been doing so well at
  2. My rendition of my heart will go on after the fifth glass of wine in front of your work mates
  3. Cycling home and walking up with the pillow stuck with crusted blood to my face
  4. Leaving out the back door like I was guilty

We were walking into the pub together and you were telling me how excited you were to be starting a fresh. I said you were talking in clichés. I got us both a glass of wine. You said that you wanted to spread your wings and see the world. I told you enough with the clichés already, but you carried on. Queen of the “already been quoted thousands of times before”.

You chinked your glass with mine and smiled. Your cheekbones were prominent and your make up made your eyes big and wide. I thought you looked stunning, but I never said.

“I’ll miss you, you know that?” you said.

“Don’t go all soppy on me now.” I swallowed the burning lump in my throat and sipped my wine. People came through the door, loudly. Cheering your name and laughing. You got up, smiling and waving at everyone. Some older guy kissed you on the cheek and asked if you wanted a drink. You said yes and swished off to the bar in your swishy dress that clinged to your tiny waist and brushed against your long legs.

I sat staring into my glass of wine for a few more minutes until you called me over. You introduced me to people I didn’t know, people I didn’t care to know. You made me shake hands and smile at everyone while you kept people laughing and spoke all your favourite clichés.

“A new challenge is just what I need.”

“You’ll be great.” Some bitch with a bob said.

“I think it’s time to see some of the world, you know, spread my wings.” – ah ha. I thought. You’ve said that one already. Bad enough using the clichés, let alone repeating them in the same evening to the same ears.

I drank the rest of my wine. I ordered another and a side of vodka. You said that I should lay off the vodka, told everyone at the bar how I once stripped on a pool table after a bottle of the cheap stuff. Some young guy with dark hair and almond eyes laughed and said, “Bar man, make hers a double.”

The night went on. Your eyes got more glazed with each glass of wine. You danced. I sat down and watched. I spoke to the guy with the brown hair and the almond eyes, he brought me more vodka and we kissed. Did you know that? I kissed him to make you notice. To make you change your tracks on the dance floor and move your way to me and say, “hey, stop kissing him. You’re mine.” Then you’d take me home, you’d stay with me. But, you didn’t even look over. You had one hand in the air and was dancing to “We Will Rock You” by Queen.

I managed to brush off the guy with the almond eyes and the brown hair. He lost interest when I didn’t take my clothes off and dance on the pool table after the copious amounts of vodka he was buying me. He moved on to someone who looked ‘office hot’. The best of a bad bunch.

The karaoke came out. I was swaying on my feet by this point and was soon enough signing myself up to sing “my heart will go on.” People got out there lighters and swayed in front of me as I sang out of tune and out of time.

I went outside for fresh air and  a cigarette. I threw up in the ash tray. I had beer to get rid of that hot sick taste. It was like lava. Why did you make me have the curry before me went out?

You saw that I was in a slumped up state in the corner so you brought me a piece of chocolate gooey gateau.

“You having a good time?” You said. I nodded and began to inhale the cake. I couldn’t get it in fast enough. I spent weeks trying to resist the urge to eat my feelings.

“You’ll be okay, won’t you?”

“Me?” I said with my mouth full. Flecks of cake fell out and onto your dress. You brushed it off. “I’ll be fine. I was fine before, I’ll be fine now.”

“You will be. I know you will be. Anyway, we’ll stay in touch. You can come over and stay with me.”

“Ha! Bit far for my bank account to take me.”

“You can save.”

“Yeah.” I said. “I’m getting more cake.” You were left on your own for about 20 seconds but for those moments you lost your smile. Your mouth turned down and you looked like tears might start. I almost ran back to tell you to stay and that my heart was broken in a way that I didn’t know it could. But just as my adrenaline got started and my palms started sweating at the thought of telling you, someone came over and made you laugh. You were fine.

I ate two more slices of cake. I eat when I’m stressed. I eat when I’m sad and I eat when I’m scared. That was why I had three slices.

I left the party without saying goodbye to you because I was bad at goodbyes. I didn’t want to show you how much you leaving was hurting me. I knew that I’d end up in an uncontrollable crying fit that couldn’t be cured by cuddles. I needed an, “I love you.”

I rode home on my bike. I didn’t wear my helmet and I found ringing my bell hilarious. I was cackling through tears like some kind of mad, misunderstood witch.

I fell off. Hit my head on someone’s garden wall. There was so much blood, I had to take my top off to bandage up my wound. Heads bleed bad, you remember we found that out when you fell over drunk after New Year ’s Eve. We spent New Year ’s Day up A and E eating the contents of the vending machine and watching crap day time TV.

In the morning I sat up in bed and the pillow followed, stuck to my head with dried blood. I took my phone out of my handbag to see that I had missed calls and text messages from you. My hazy hangover made me slow, but all I could think of was that you were trying to tell me you had changed your mind. You loved me. You needed to stay with me. You weren’t going to go.

But that wasn’t the message I got.

You were angry and shouting down the phone. “I needed a goodbye from you, you coward. You selfish bitch.” You said I was the worst friend you’d had. You said I selfish loner who’d die alone. You loathed my introverted-ness, that you always claimed you loved.

Then then there was the screeching of brakes and a scream that still chills the marrow of my bones. That scream wakes me up every night in a cold sweat of regret.

The phone went dead.

I almost didn’t go to your funeral, but your words resounded in my mind. “I needed a goodbye from you.” I said goodbye and I cried into a bunch of tulips. I left them, and a piece of my heart that was fit to explode with love for you, by your grave side.

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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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Happiness #2

“You’ve got a brick for a heart, don’t you know that?” He was crying harder now and the words were breaking as he spoke.

I was straight faced, standing above him and staring forward. He was sitting on the curb up hugging his legs to his chest. He looked pathetic. He was a muscly man, lifted weights and spent evenings at the gym. To me, he used to be a bear, now I saw him for what he was- a big soppy bastard.

“You need to see someone and sort your shit out, you know that?” he said.  I was sick of his tears, sick of him telling me who I was and what I had. How would he know, how would anyone?

I spat at him. A big foamy lump of spit landed on his already damp cheek. “You dare, you dare tell me who I am one more time and I swear…” He wiped his cheek on his sleeve.

“That was low,” he said. “Even for you.” He stayed on the curb, I expected more of a reaction to the gob on his face. I wanted a fight.

“If you don’t get up from there, I’ll get in the car and I promise I’ll run you over,” I said with my teeth gritted. He was leaning up against my car. The only way out of the space was to reverse.

“Do it, then seeing you like this won’t hurt.”

“Don’t be so fuckin’ melodramatic,” I said and kicked his foot. “I’ll make sure it hurts. I’ll run you so far into the ground that you become part of this puddle.” I skimmed by boot across the muddy water. It splashed him.

I could feel a burning in my stomach and all the muscles in my back that I had left were tightening. Anger was boiling inside me. I wanted to scream myself out of my skin. I slapped him round the ears and shouted, “Let me go and be happy.” Over and over. He curled up into a ball to protect his head and neck. When I stopped hitting him I was crying. Tears of lava were burning on my toddler tantrum face.

“I’ll let you go, soon as you get help.” He said.

“I don’t need no help. I don’t need it from them and I don’t need it from you. I fumbled around in my bag looking for the keys. The bag was deep and I could hear them chinking but couldn’t see them through my blurred tears. I tipped everything out onto the rainy road. Purse, pens, notepad, receipts, cards. My car keys landed in a puddle, next to the curb he was sitting on. He grabbed my wrist and stared me in the eyes.

“You’re not going anywhere in this state. You’re worse than drunk.”

“I’d be happier dead than sitting here with you.” He pulled me close so we were head to head.

“I’ll help you,” he said through a snot bubble. “I’ll help you sort it all out.”

“I’m sorting it out, I’m getting rid of you. You’re the problem here, not me. Let go.”

I tried to pull myself away but he dragged me closer so we were nose to nose. I could smell kebab on his breath.

“You’re sick.”

“You’re a fuckin’ bastard.” My voice was deeper and coarse from screaming at him to let me go.

I just wanted to be free. I just wanted to be happy.

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Visiting you.

Little, tiny fingers. I kissed them. I pushed them to my cheek. She was so familiar, so warm, so soft- but not fat. I think I would have cried if I wasn’t where I was. That moment there was so much energy between us that I don’t think there was enough left for the rest of the world. There’s only so much energy and at that point, we had it all.

“I kept track of you, you know. I kept all your letters, watched all the news about you, read all the papers. Just wanted to know you were getting on alright,” she said. “Sorry it’s taken so long, been hard, I mean, harder for you course but still, hard.” She was almost crying, you know all blurry eyed and red faced. I didn’t want to talk about the past, I wanted to forget it, talk about new stuff.

“Tell me about what you’ve been doing, you’ve got an hour and 40 minutes to tell me everything you’ve been doing in the last 6 years.” We sat forward in our seats, holding hands. She told me how she’d got it sorted. Living in London. Living with mates, having a laugh. Any men? No. Any Kids? No. Any chance? Yes, maybe. She was making me laugh again. She told me little stories about her mad nights out in London, like when her mate got so drunk and pissed herself laughing on the number 23 bus. She was working in a shop, said she liked it there. Didn’t pay much but it was a good laugh, she worked in a  bar in the evenings sometimes. Said that the dirty old pervs were always trying to take her on dates. She threw a pint over one man and slapped him round the face ‘cos he touched her leg. I told her about Daz, about how good he’s been and how nosey. Told her a couple of stories that I had. About how we make toasties in toastie bags. Told her how I’m doing an English course and learning how to string words together. She said she noticed that my spelling was good in my letter. Didn’t tell her I had Ben’s help on that one.

“Still see your dad?”

“Fuck my dad,” she said and I wished I hadn’t asked. I looked at the can of drink, the half eaten tart, anywhere but at her. “No, I don’t. No time for him now, he doesn’t try and when he does we just row. So no, why do you?” Didn’t like her tone on that. Knew I shouldn’t have brought him up.

“Course not,” I said. Needed to change the subject. “You reckon you’ll come again?”

“You want me to come again?”

“I don’t have to answer that.” I smoothed her face, she rubbed against it like a kitten. Ten minutes left. Gotta get ready to say goodbye. Didn’t know how to let her go. Just felt right her being slotted into my body. Like before when we were together and then she’d go I’d get that feeling like I’d left something on the bus. Me and Old Fruit used to do Puzzles and there was always one bit missing, I think I knew where she was.

She was coming back to see me when I was out, not long. She said she’d come up for my days out next month. She said that we’d eat out, go to the cinema and have a laugh like before. She’d be there I just had to let her know where and when.

“I can’t help with, you know, I can’t pay.”

“I never wanted your money James.” Times up. Goodbye, it’s been great. Now if you’d leave without tears and without fuss that’d be great. Step aside James, routine search, strip. That’s one way to ruin a visit. I wanted to go back to my room, think over those last two hours but instead I was standing bare ball-ed being patted down and prodded.

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