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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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Happiness

He looked over the top of his glasses, nodded his head and made a humming noise. I don’t know why he looked at the menu, we’d gone there every week for ten years. The menu never changed, except when they introduced steak night on Wednesday, but we went on Friday so what did it matter to us? It was a long ten minutes of swirling the dregs of his beer around in his glass, and gazing over the menu as if it was the directions to the Holy Grail. He finally closed his menu and put it on top of mine.

“You know what you’re having love?” I finished off the last of my Rioja and folded my arms on the table.

“Yes, the salmon. You?”

“I’m going to try their steak and ale pie.” Try? I thought. He’d been ‘trying’ it every other week since 1998.

The waitress didn’t even change. I didn’t know what was sadder, the fact we’d been eating there for 10 years, or the fact that she’d been working there all that time. She was a bowling ball. She rolled around the restaurant, between the tight tables. “Oops, coming through,” she’d say while trying to land a plate of vegetables on one table, and navigate her obscenely big bottom around the chairs. I thought how could you let yourself get like that. Must be picking in the kitchen and it is true what they say, little pickers really do wear big knickers.

She shuffled through the tables, pen behind her ear and note pad in her hand. Her tights were like the skin you get on sausages and her skirt was showing too much of them. Her gut was tucked in to her skirt and her shirt buttons weren’t done up high enough. Cleavage was spilling out all over the restaurant. She was smiling at us. Pretty face with heart shaped lips and big eyes. Lots of make-up but that’s what they do these days. Understated is out.

“Fancy seeing you here,” she said. I smiled and Al laughed.

“Yes, fancy it,” I said.

“Let me guess,” she put her fingers to her temples and hummed, she pointed at me. “The salmon?”

“That’s me,” I said. “How did you guess?”

“And you are having…” she looked at Al and did the same with her fingers on her temples. “Now, last week you had the sausage and mash, so this week it has got to be the pie!” Al laughed hysterically, I laughed a little.

“You’re so good at remembering,” he said breathless from laughing. Had he always laughed at jokes that weren’t funny? Jokes that weren’t even jokes.

“Did you want it with all the usual trimmings? Chips and peas with the pie, new potatoes and veg with the salmon?”

“Please.” We both said same tone, same time.

She shuffled back through the tables, the glasses chinked together as she passed. One week we when we were at the restaurant I spent the entire time thinking about how the place could be arranged better. Why did they even have so many tables? The place was never full, just a couple of regulars doing regular things.

I knew Al would go and get us both a drink, he liked to do something while he waited. I told him I’d have the large red and he shuffled off to get them.

He was at the bar.

“Hello Al, me old mate,” that was the barman. “What will it be?” He knew what it will be, bet he even knew the joke, wait for it and brace yourselves, it’s a good one.

“I’ll have a large red and a pint of Frog, not in the same glass mind!” The barman was kind, he laughed. I cringed every time I heard that bloody ‘joke’. To think, all those years ago when we met I’d laughed at that. I’d touched his shoulder in the pub while he ordered the first drink we ever shared and thought it was the funniest thing. Those were the days, back then when I was in a pub with my friends, having interesting conversations.

Good old conversations.

Since we moved out in the sticks ten years ago I lost touch with everyone. Al promised me it would be nice in the country, there would be groups to join and he could get a dog. He never got a dog and I never joined a group. He got old and I got shy.

Al shuffled back, two glasses in his hands. He always placed them so gently on the coasters and had to line the rim up with the picture. He breathed heavy because he had polyps, and it was worse after any kind of physical activity- even walking to the bar. A couple of long hairs tickled his upper lip and I wished he’d used the nose hair trimmer I’d got him for Christmas. I took a sip of my drink; he took a sip of his. He looked around the room, and I did to. I lined the coaster up with the edge of the table, and counted the corners on the picture frames. I looked at my hands and stroked each soft nail, straightened my eternity ring.

Eternity means forever.  I spun it back round.

I knew exactly what he was going to say and I tried to stop him because every time he said it I hated him.

“I do love the wall paper here you know. You think we could do it at our place. Hire someone in maybe, you know I’m not too good with wall papering.” Words to that effect were said every week, every other week if I was lucky. The wall paper had been up since 2005. Big ugly flowers taking over an entire wall.

“Yes, I guess we could. We would have to hire someone of course,” I said. He nodded and took another sip of his drink. He sang along to a song he was too old to know and tapped his hand on his knee. Next, he had a choice of three people to talk about and two different topics. Either his brother giving his kids their inheritance last year, or the next door neighbor getting her teeth done.

It was our neighbor and the teeth. He was thinking about going down to talk to the dentist about his. He hated his teeth. Bit late to care now I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I nodded, smiled. He told me I was blessed with straight square teeth. Others would kill for my teeth he said, then the food came.

I didn’t see the signs, honest. I was looking down at my plate, picking at the fish and trying to remember if the salmon always tasted so bland. I was thinking what I would do if I ever got to cook something so different. I thought that rosemary and butter would make this salmon so much tastier and maybe a foil parcel would make it more moist. I decided that I’d make it for myself soon and Al could have his usual meat, veg and potatoes. I looked up to tell him how I was going to do the salmon, not that he’d care, and not that he’d react, but I had to say something.

Al looked different. His mouth was drooped at one side. His arms were heavy on his lap. “Al,” I said. “Are you okay? Is something wrong with the pie?”

He tried to speak but his words were slurring like he’d drank six pints of Frog, not one and a half. It clicked.

I threw my chair back, “Call an ambulance!” A stroke, of course. It was a blur, the staff rushing around, a couple of diners leaving their meals to lend mobiles. I didn’t know how to work it, I threw it back and said, “you call.”

When the flashing lights got there they bundled us both in the back of the ambulance, Al more carefully of course. I knew he was goner. It was how his mother went. I held his limp hand and thought how we hadn’t held hands in years.

His nose hair stopped tickling his upper lip on the road that led to the hospital. The paramedic turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, he’s gone.”

It felt like Christmas eve back when the kids were little. It felt like the weight of a 14 stone man had been lifted from my shoulders. It felt like happiness.

“Do you cook salmon in a foil parcel,” I said the paramedic, “or do you pan fry?”

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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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