91. Stand Down, Soldier

She’s still sat in the same position as she was when I let myself in three hours ago, but at least she’s drunk her tea. I know she only tried to eat that sandwich so she could take her tablet. Gently moving the ornaments closer together, I make room on the mantelpiece for the cards that arrived today. She’s been stroking his sweater all day, trying to remember when she knew the people whose thoughts she’s in. I put the picture of him in uniform holding his son, onto the coffee table.

“Joan?” I pause, whilst the word registers. She slowly turns her head to look up at me, and smiles weakly with recognition. Reaching for my hand, her grip is feeble and grateful. Tomorrow, she won’t let me go.

“I wrote down everything I did whilst I was here. I’ll come back tomorrow at 8 o’clock to dry your hair and make you some breakfast. Ring me if you want me and I’ll come straight round. I’ve got a key.”

I kiss the top of her head and manage to hold in the tears until I’m out of earshot half way down the street.

Buried deep within the walls, air in the pipes make them shudder, and they give out a desperate, low shriek, as I hold my fingers under the slowly warming water. I inhale through a hot wrung-out flannel pressed over my nose and mouth, count in for four and silently scream out for seven. I wonder if he still cries in the shower.

This mirror has seen so much.

Too busy living his own life to visit, never travelling the thousands of miles to say goodbye to his own father. She’s lived off scarce letters for years. He smiles in photographs with people we don’t know, on beaches we will never see. It’s unjust and I’m not ashamed to feel bitter that he is the one who will get the sympathy tomorrow, but this isn’t my battle to fight. I have to disengage. Become detached. No-one dare say it, but we all know why he’s come back. She won’t be living round here much longer.

I just hope time has rubbed his raw edges smooth.

Advertisements

89. Sunset

I’ve had chance to think about it and it wasn’t the infidelity that upset me more. I am from an bohemian family after all. It was the secrecy and deceit. The lying. No one can ever know. There was absolutely no need for it. I think I handled it quite well really.

“That’s a nice mug.” Alison had said, as I carefully washed my cup in the sink. “I saw one of those in that craft shop in The Lanes. Don’t you work there on weekends?” The way she had said it sounded weird, like this was her best shot from 100 Instagram rehearsals. We both knew where she’d seen a mug like this one before because there was only one other of them in existence.

I instantly felt as if I’d been injected with some drug that made my body speed up but my mind slow down at the same time, like something in ‘The Matrix.’ My soupy fog brain felt completely separate and was lagging behind the electric energy racing through my body. I was upside-down. Not wanting to unravel in front of this person who had so calmly attempted to manipulate a reaction, I carefully unpicked what I knew to be true.

Monday night was Michael’s gig. A few people went from the office, including Alison. I could only stay for a quick drink, to say hello, show support. He never needed me when he was surrounded by his people.

Was this her way of letting me know that she didn’t actually “miss the last bus home so stayed on a friend’s sofa?”

Just how do adults navigate relationships in the real world? I barely knew. My experiences with men had been so unsatisfactory. I have no idea how I managed to get through the rest of the afternoon. I suppose, once you’ve decided, or rather, the decision has been made for you, the hard work is done.

When I said I needed to see him after work, he didn’t make an excuse. My patience had worn thin. I had already decided that if he was going to try to continue to ignore and avoid me, then I would just let him. I too would pretend he no longer existed. But, there would never be a good time for “the talk” so we might as well do the decent thing and get it over and done with. Although he refused to come clean and admit it, he knew that I knew what he’d done. Yeah he might very well have had “a hangover from hell” but that shouldn’t stop someone from sending a text to their girlfriend for almost a day after their gig, so was this behaviour sulky revenge? I had believed him when he said he was watching the Tour de France, the World Cup, Wimbledon, having a band practice or whatever it was, every night this week.

No. I knew I was being gently and politely pushed away in favour of the shiny new toy, but of course, he was far too cowardly to do it himself. I had to be the one who officially ended it, although he actually finished us on Monday night. He just never told me. Even someone else had to do that for him.

There wasn’t enough time to do the things I wanted to do, let alone waste it on stuff I didn’t. I’d barely sipped my coke and was playing with one of the few plastic bendy straws still in existence, when the conversation was over.

I had no idea how to break up with someone, because I’d never done it before, so I just said “This isn’t fun for me any more and it’s not really working out, so I think we should call it quits.” It was the second time in a week that I’d left him with a full pint but I didn’t care. He might play guitar hero in a local band but he was nothing to me. The pub was slowly filling up with the Friday night after-work crowd, so it would appear like he was just waiting for someone and they were running late. He looked genuinely shocked when I stood up, shook his hand, and said “There we are then. Good luck mate” then left.

My parents consoled and spoiled me all weekend. My father reminded me that “as an emerging artist” I should “use this experience as an opportunity to not resist what I’m feeling and to channel those emotions into my work”, and “that if we just stayed in our studios, where would we get our inspiration from?” He was right though. I had 72 bowls and mugs to glaze and fire this weekend, and I was already bursting with new ideas for the next batch.

A massive binge of ‘The XX’, ‘The Twilight Sad’ and ‘Arab Strap’ got me through the night, along with a whole family bag of Doritos, a jar of hot salsa, almost a whole sharing pack of Maltesers, and a bottle of Pinot Noir all to myself. I wallowed and grieved for what could have been until I realised I felt relief for getting out at the beginning of something before it got messy. My new sketches slowly got sloppier that night. By 2am Saturday morning , I was jumping up and down, swinging my arms, hair flailing, punching the air, cheerfully singing “I don’t want to be around you any more. I can’t stand to be around you any more.” Music therapy indeed. I still felt humiliated, but without shame.

On Monday, I went out for coffee with June, the receptionist from the office, purely, so by the end of the week, everyone would pretty much know I was single again, and why. It was a good deal. June got a juicy story straight from the horse’s mouth, and, with my blessing, everyone got to know some true office gossip. I got sympathy. Alison got, well, whatever.

I just kept my head down, and stayed busy, planning the window display and imagining how I’d feel if/when someone bought something I’d made. After my craft stall I was taking the rest of the stock to the shop on Sunday. Things I’d made! In an actual shop! Not my online etsy shop. A proper shop with a bell on the door. A till and real people browsing. If they sold well, then who knew what would happen?

I brought half a dozen pieces into work the next day and left them on the reception desk with a few flyers, business cards and a bowl of Werther’s Originals to encourage people to get closer. June, told me later that they’d caused quite a talking point, and that Alison had taken a special interest, probably to try to talk to her, the resident sage. June then told me that she’d said to Alison, that yes they were “beautifully made, so quite expensive, but that I would probably have some seconds on my stall if she was interested.” I nearly spat out my coffee with glee when she told me that she’d said, “Seconds are cheaper because they are imperfect.” The icing on the cake was that she advised Alison to get tested for an STD because I was going to.  “These things happen” when you get together drunk with a cheater who thinks he’s a rock star.

That disgusting, greasy kitchen in his shared house. Bicycles and amps in the hallway. Piles of post for previous residents. Pizza boxes and PS4. Record covers used as skinning-up boards. Torn rizla packets and magazines about guitars. Tacit agreements to never mention the (less often than they’d like) sight of a strange girl wandering round the kitchen at 4am in her knickers and a sweaty band t-shirt. Mismatched charity shop hand-me-down plates, chipped mugs with their fading logos. Those cloned vessels reminding the user of one-off, unmemorable events. Temporary items of no value with the expectation of being discarded after use. I only brought one of my own porcelain mugs round so I’d have something decent to drink out of. Well, he can keep it. I don’t want it back.

88. A Sort of Homecoming

“There are two kinds of people in this world.” I say, exaggerating my hand gestures, to emphasise complete certainty, in front of my five-year-old nephew. “Those who like marmite and those who don’t, and,” (dramatic pause) “you can’t tell which, just by looking. Your uncle hates kissing me bye if I’m eating this.”

His little face lights up at this new, vitally crucial information and he spends the next half-hour interrogating everyone who enters the dining room about whether they like marmite. His cheerfulness catches them off-guard. Their unashamed reactions of revulsion and horror, are an absolute treat for the boy. Wide-eyed in wonder at the adults in his life, repulsed and showing fear for the very first time. Taking centre stage, he is the star of his very own Roald Dahl book played out in real life.

“No, it’s blah. How anyone can eat that… that GUNGE, is beyond me.”

“I’m completely addicted. I love it. I have to take a little jar with me on holiday.”

“I’ll find you that YouTube video of Japanese people eating it for the first time. They’re being polite but you can tell they hate it. Their faces!”

“Marmite is banned in Denmark because it’s so disgusting. No lie. You can google it if you don’t believe me. It’s only a matter of time before we come to our senses and catch up.”

“Me and you have to stick together, kid. There’s not many of us out there.”

Between giggles at their utter contempt, he boldly crunches his toast, hamming it up with “mmmmmms”, looks them right in the eye and licks the butter knife, and even once kisses the jar. Relishing with glee the power he has to effortlessly own the room.

My other half walks in, starts to greet us, halts, wrinkles his nose and sighs “oh god, not another convert.”

I nearly forgot…

Come on England!🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 🦁 🦁 🦁

87. Orange Crush

“Anyway, I said to him that, even if I had gone home with him that first night we met, we probably wouldn’t even have lasted the weekend. I didn’t mean it as a reflection on him. You know how everything does my head in when I’m hungover and I can’t be around anyone.” She explained. “I wanted to. I would have, but I had to dogsit the next day. Anyway, that was, like, two years ago. I’ve got a rule now that I don’t have sex when I’m drunk. Not after this.” She holds up her left arm.

“And then he said something really weird that I’ve been thinking about all week. He said, um, ‘None of the people I’ve been with have lasted the weekend either.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

We spend the next hour analysing and dissecting that one sentence. Far longer than on any coursework.

Had he really never been in a relationship before?

Does he only have sex with strangers?

Is there something wrong with him?

Drunk sex is usually pretty rubbish.

Was this a lie to try to get her to show him how good sex could actually be? So he can pretend inexperience to be seduced and not have to make much effort?

Is he a blocker and ghoster?

Did what she say hurt him and so he was just being mean right back at her?

Was she just like him right up to the moment she fell out of bed and broke her arm?

Were we telling the truth or protecting ourselves or was it just what we thought each other wanted to hear?

Was this a subtle way of agreeing in advance to keep it casual? A ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement?

Was it true and he’s clumsy, selfish or too intense?

Was it his way of saying she could be the one?

Who was the naive one in all this?

To all of her questions I’ve answered “I don’t know” because I genuinely have no idea. Cerys was so right when she sang about why she couldn’t stand one-night stands.

“No-one has ever said as much to me with their eyes as he has.” She’s smitten already and she’s only met him twice, and that was two years apart. I’ve worked with him for four years but I probably know less about him than she does. He’s always been polite around me. I don’t think he’s a creep but he’s not on my radar either. I’ve heard no rumours and I barely know him. His temperament seems consistent. He’s five foot ten, slim to dad-bod, nice-looking. I know he likes likes dogs, cycling and the Foo Fighters. We’ve been on a couple of Christmas lunches and after-work drinks. Maybe she should give him the benefit of the doubt. She wants honesty but is so used to being deceived that she might not recognise truth when she sees it. I don’t know. How do I know? Why is she asking me? Maybe she should just ask him.

Whatever the outcome, I need to back off. Extract myself. from this situation. Be professional in my own personal life. Neither of them seem clingy. This should just play out and unfold naturally. I’m already too involved. How did any of this even become my business? If they want my opinion, I’m sure they’ll ask. All of us are the odd-one out here; it’s getting messy before it’s even started and it’s just occurred to me that our completely separate relationships with each other might not survive.

It might be a bit strange to see a colleague having breakfast in my kitchen on Saturday morning so I think I’ll stay over at a friend’s house on Friday.

86. Early Adopters

“They’ll make you whatever you want to eat here, Grandad.”

The menu is quite impressive. Every egg dish you could think of, either duck or hen. Bacon and sausages of a named breed from a Norfolk farm. At least six kinds of tea. Runner-up in a barista championship. Bakery on the premises. I can see a royal warrant before too long.

“I think that’s them.” I say. His Grandad turns stiffly to see the camera crew that’s just walked in. “Your interview’s not for an hour, so we’ve got loads of time. Have you decided what you’re having?”

It’s no coincidence that this restaurant is called ‘RE.’ It’s both the initials of the original company that owned it, and the beginning of every word used to describe the concept and evolution of the building.

His hands tremble a little as he holds the paper, but his eyesight and hearing are way better than mine, thanks to modern technology. “I’m going to try a fried duck egg, thick cut bacon, field mushrooms, home grown tomatoes and toast, and I want some marmalade. If it’s that same marmalade that you got me at Christmas, then I want another jar to take home with me.”

Half an hour later, we’re sat in that contemplative silence you get when you’re comfortable in each other’s space. He hasn’t set foot in here for over fifty years.

He’s studying the 1970s school chair, stroking the grey and red heavy felted wool fabric on the seat. “These are just like the blankets we had in the war.”

I think of festival stalls piled high with old hospital blankets in mint green or bubblegum pink. Quietly stored for decades in a building just like this one, waiting to live temporarily in a gated community. Life had no meaning outside of those walls. Cloaked, comforted, cherished, then casually discarded.

He’s too polite to ask why the floor is concrete and pipe work exposed. Air ducts instead of a ceiling, overhead cisterns with pull chains in the loos. Why none of the taps match along the long institutional, animal trough sink. The amber, oval transparent bar of Pears soap with the unmistakable smell like spicy coal tar that transports you back to childhood. A towel machine on a roll next to an airblade hand dryer.

He points out parts of the warehouse where industrial machinery once stood, and why it looks like there’s a door to nowhere halfway up the wall. The hoists that swung out over the canal. How two men lay on their backs on the boat and “legged it” by walking along the inside of the brick tunnel to move the boat along, in the years before the towpath was built. No-one cared, then or now, how hard the job was. The only story everyone wants to hear is how he saved a man’s life by pulling him out from a grain bin, where he would have otherwise suffocated.

I couldn’t have predicted that audio cassettes and vhs tapes would make a comeback so soon, but it’s only a brief glimpse into his world. The working red telephone box in the foyer, next to the second-hand bookshop. A booth selling sweets by the quarter and a florist with exotic blooms for £4 a stem. Offices of companies that only exist online, next to artist space, the obligatory bicycle repair shop and a combination wine and vinyl warehouse, with barely anything for less than a tenner. A cut-throat barber shop complete with tweed knickerbocker-wearing Victorian gents and their twizzly moustaches, straight out of ‘Peaky Blinders.’

Sanitised nostalgia, packaged and sold back to us in red and white striped paper bags for more than we originally paid.

Even this meal didn’t exist back then.

A woman wearing loose flannel trousers, a silk shirt, and an expensively scruffy hairstyle strides over, followed by a younger, nervous youth carrying a clipboard and phone. Their lanyards have the name of the TV production company on it. She sticks out her hand and says, “William? I’m Jessica. Pleased to meet you.”

85. IV

Morphine suits me. I’m dopey, happy, sleepy. I thought I’d be more grumpy from lack of food, but after eight hours, I’d gone past wanting it. I was definitely not bashful. A dozen strangers saw me naked, bleeding onto clean sheets.

Tea. Toast. Jam. Water. Co-codamol. Ibuprofen. Sofa. Film. Bed. Repeat every six hours for three days. Jet lag. Nausea. Period pains. Hangover.

Room number four. My nurse is called Ivy Rose and she’s my kind Irish mother for the day. I think she knows she has a beautiful name and pretends I’ve never said it before, every time I tell her. I thank everyone in a uniform for looking after me. I’ll be on my own soon. Independent. Just me and Siri. She can remind me to take my meds, ring people for me, and change the channel on the TV, but she can’t loosen bottle tops, or lift a kettle.