92. A Northern Light

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“Sorry I’m late.” Lauren was slightly out of breath. She took off her cross body bag and unravelled her scarf. Sitting down wearily, heavily into the chair, she fanned her face. “How’d it go then?” She asked, but before I could reply, she had clocked the boxed tuna Niçoise salad I’d bought for her.” Ooh thanks!” she said, as I hand her a burgundy-coloured plastic knife and fork and a couple of recycled napkins.

“Coconut water or lemonade?” I held up both bottles, lifting each one slightly higher than the other as I said its name.

“Lemonade please.”

“Yeah, he was a great date, but I don’t think I’ll see him again.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, Harry’s a lovely bloke, exactly like his profile, which makes a nice change, and I really liked him online – he was funny, kind, and we got on great – but we just didn’t…” I paused trying to find the right word. “You know? Click.”

“No spark?” She peered at my avocado and crayfish salad. She did this to me every week. Lauren always wanted what I had.

I shook my head.

“Oh that’s a shame.” said Lauren. “You sounded like you really liked him.”

“I did. I do. I mean, he’s great. I keep thinking I’m being too picky. I just want to feel that, you know, that, pang of desire.” I said, trying to summon some kind of enthusiasm for the whole ridiculous process.

“You gotta have the pang.” She replied using a fake American accent. “Mind you, it never lasts, so what you never had, you never miss. No wonder-lust.”

I shook the tub of already-separating peppery oil and vinegar dressing and just about managed to open its fiddly lid, without spilling it. Dribbling the glossy, opaque liquid over my salad, a lemony garlicky aroma filled my nose. I gently prodded first at a slippery slice of avocado, then stabbed at a big piece of lollo rosso. There was no elegant way to eat this.

“Why don’t you just go out with him again? Just for the practice. It was only one meal.” She emphasised the word, ‘one’. “That’s a lot of pressure. He might have been nervous. Your nerves make you” pointing at me “a bit full-on whenever you meet someone and that’s not the real you. You wouldn’t give up on someone you really liked if the first time you went to bed, it was a bit… er, off.” She said, trying to be supportive.

“Nah.” I say. “You’re totally right though. You always are. I don’t know. Maybe I should, but there wasn’t any spark and I’m alright for friends. It might give him the wrong idea if we met up again. I can’t do that to him. He’s one of the good ones. Anyway, what if I met someone? I can’t have two people in my head like last time.”

“Yeah, good point” said Lauren. She screwed the lid back onto her cloudy lemonade bottle then smoothed out some imaginary creases on her skirt. “Actually,” she cleared her throat. “I’ve met someone.” She looked up at me, and then paused for a second to pick at some invisible lint from her cardigan. “He’s called Robert. He’s a Solicitor and he’s wonderful. We’ve been out twice. Once for coffee and once for lunch. I’m a little bit smitten and we’re going out for dinner on Saturday.” She clapped her hands together with glee.

I chewed and smiled as best I can though a mouthful of lettuce, but she wasn’t looking at me.

Her hands had formed a prayer pose, thumbs together, fingertips touching her lips. Sighing longingly, she opened her hands slightly, and placed the tips of her index and middle fingers over her mouth, almost as if she was trying to stop herself saying something. Her eyes darted around for a second. She was worried. Pensive. Then she took a deep breath in, sighed out, whilst doing a cleansing, pushing away tai chi gesture.

“God, please, please, please, let him not be one of those Don Draper types that only likes the beautiful beginnings of things.” She was almost begging. Then she looked right at me and said. “You know what I mean don’t you? When you think you’ve found the perfect gent, but once you’ve had sex, he loses interest completely. You’ve met one of them?”

“I have, unfortunately.” I said wearily. “I hate them. I absolutely effin hate them. Why is sex like a switch? The first month they adore everything about you, and they even say they think they’re falling for you, and then the next week, literally everything you do or say is annoying, and they make you feel like you’ve don’t something wrong, that you repulse them. It’s exactly like that Foo Fighters song, “Then I’m done, done, onto the next one.” Or they just disappear. Why do they do that?”

“Because they can, and we let them. They’ll wait as long as it takes to get what they want. I’ve heard some pathetic excuses. The reasons they give are just shocking.” She said, shaking her head.

“I know!” I said incredulously. “How can they not be ready for a relationship when they’ve signed up to a relationship site?”

“Billy liars. That’s what.” She said. “I tell you what, right? If Robert turns out to be a complete tool, then I swear I’m off men. Fini. They’re not worth it.”

We clink our plastic bottles together to seal the deal.

“Do you think we should keep these from now on?” I said, holding up my fork.

“Why’s that then?” She asked.

“You know I’ve got this theory that in a few years, when cannabis is legalised, there will be sales reps that come round to your house to sell you ‘weed for your needs,’ from the comfort of your own home? They’ll ask you if there is anything else you want, like home-made edibles that aren’t regulated, or vape oil or whatever. And you’ll go, “Actually, I’m having a party, so do you have any plastic knives, forks, spoons and straws?” So, they’ll go to the boot of their car and get them. It’ll be totally illegal.”

“Probably,” she chuckled. “A reversal of fortune. Like fox hunting and homosexuality were last century. Carrying a plastic bag will be the new fur.”

I laughed and nearly coughed at the same time. “Do you want to get a gelato?” I asked hopefully.

“Mmmm. Yes. That sounds good. Next week I am definitely getting THAT.” She said, determinedly, pointing her knife at the remainder of my salad.

“You still coming with me to that Twitter Writers meet-up book launch thingy tomorrow?” I ask her.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. I get a free book written by someone you know, and you finally get to meet the people you spend so much time with.” she replied. “Will there be anyone famous there?”

“Nah. Doubt it.” I say. “The author’s brother is in ‘Holby City’, so he might be there if he’s not working, and that bloke from that band, ‘Air Mail’ likes to be seen out and about. I reckon he’ll be there. It’s probably how he got his band name.”

I had no idea what to wear to a book launch. I’d only been to a couple of indie publisher’s launches in bookshops before. Nothing like this, with money thrown at it, from a major house. The invitations were printed on cream stiff card that had a fake red wine stain ring on it to echo the novel’s subject matter.

The hotel foyer’s sign indicated the event was in the Kensington Room, and there had already been an afternoon tea pre-launch event earlier in the day, to which I had not been invited. I had a plus one to the wine reception/mixer and official book launch. The author was going to do a reading, then there was to be a Q and A, a quick half an hour signing, photos, then four, maybe six of us from Twitter were going to go for a meal. That was the plan anyway. It might end up being just me and Lauren down the pub.

It seemed like quite a posh do. There was a sign-in table which still had about 60 name badges on it by the time I arrived. I considered whether I should write my Twitter name on the badge as well as my real name, and decided to go for it, or how else would some people know who I was?

I admitted to myself that I was a little nervous about meeting people in the flesh that I already kind of knew. I wasn’t bothered that they might not like me in person. Not that at all. People are hardly ever like you imagine they are when you finally meet them in real life. No, it was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I just felt a bit, uncomfortable.

I scanned the room. There was a long table with some good Malbec, chilled Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower cordial and sparking water. Retro cheese straws and those Japanese coated peanuts that look like tiny eggs to nibble.

I think I would have quite liked to have gone to the afternoon tea, but it was a private event for the author’s ex-students and family.

I recognised a local journalist talking to the actor, and my old English tutor. She was with someone I didn’t know, and I thought I’d go over and say hi.

Two waitresses with black waistcoats and white cloths over their bent forearms, were slowly walking around, topping up glasses, and pointing people in the direction of the loos.

The usual canvas tote bag with the name and logo of the publishing house contained a hardback copy of the book – already signed – plus a bookmark for a future release, a promotional postcard, a pen, a granola bar for some bizarre reason, the obligatory metal water bottle, and a yellow stress ball with a smiley face on it. That last item was an in-joke for the Twitter community, for that was the author’s avatar.

My old English Lit teacher was talking to someone called Bob. I realised I knew him online as ‘Night,JimBob’ and he greeted me enthusiastically with an awkward sweaty handshake/arm squeeze, and then went in for a two cheek kiss. We both clumsily went to the same side for the first kiss.

He smelled incredible. There was definitely a pang, alright. I felt it. I desperately wanted to kiss him again right there and then. To this day I can’t walk past a bar of Dove soap without wanting to smell it, to try to recreate those few seconds.

An observer would never have realised that this was our first meeting, as our conversation felt so natural and fluid. It picked up right from where we left off online yesterday. Within ten seconds of meeting, we were laughing.

I finally understood why people said, “Never meet your heroes”. Everything was going to be different between us from that point onwards.

These first few moments were amazing. We just bounced off each other and after only a couple of minutes, it felt like I’d known him all my life. It was too soon to know whether he felt like that too, but it felt like he did. I hoped so anyway.

I couldn’t believe that I paid dozens of pounds every month to be introduced to police line-ups of unsuitable men, and I still managed to pick the wrong one every time. Here was someone right here, right now, in real life, standing in front of me and I’d never even noticed him before. All that time, wasted.

Bob’s interest in me abruptly halted and his voice trailed-off mid-sentence. Something else had caught his attention. He was no longer looking at me, but over my shoulder. Surprised and delighted, he had obviously just recognised someone who meant a lot to him. Someone who he was not expecting to see here. I felt like a voyeur intruding, as I observed his expression change. His face visibly softened; he beamed, eyes sparkling with pure joy at the person behind me. I turned to see my friend Lauren gazing lovingly in a lingering, locked eye embrace, with her new beau Robert.

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60. A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Ms Double-Barrelled has loads of followers on social media but that’s not because she’s interesting, popular or famous for actually doing something. She doesn’t create anything. Her unusual name has opened doors her entire life, and she’s easily found online by people who like lazy, posh girls who show their tits. It was slightly embarrassing for her parents on the first day of nursery when there was another little girl there with the same rockstar first name as hers, but Mummy made sure that the other little girl didn’t get into the same school as her unique darling.

She only took her clothes off because some scum had papped her sunbathing, and those photos didn’t show her at her best. Anyway, Lily said that’s how to get famous, and it worked for a bit. Then there was a bit of amateur solo camming, for the lols, when she ‘went off the rails’  after she split up with her druggy actor boyfriend, but it was enough for the red tops to reprint tamer stills from the site and infer that her titled MP father was “furious.”

Whenever she gets a new follower, she routinely and meticulously dredges through their lists of followers and cherry picks the best ones to add to her own list. The sycophantic cycle continues as her new followees are delighted that she not only ‘remembered’ meeting them at some random party they both attended, but actually reached out to them. They must invite her to their next gathering.

Once the Sun and the Mirror got bored, and she failed to be considered for ‘TOWIE’, let alone ‘Chelsea’, nepotism got her a part as a regular extra on a new teen drama. Despite no experience, she assumed she would get a lead role, so thought she’d try her hand at lifestyle vlogging instead.

Her new boyfriend, Buddy, is one of those juicing, vegan, barefoot, fitness types who says “Namaste” a lot. He was one of the instructors at a yoga retreat in Costa Rica, where she want to chill just after Christmas for dry January. He quit his yoga gig, and immediately moved into her Clapham flat with her. He has persuaded her to start her own youtube channel. Her face. His idea. A no-brainer, as they say. She doesn’t know his hit rate with the ladies is at least one client per retreat, because he’s so discrete. It’s been a very successful way to supplement his income for the last few years. Now he thinks he’s found the perfect mark, and it won’t do either of them any harm. All publicity is good publicity, right?

They’ve got a plan to “do Coachella and Burning Man, definitely Cannes, maybe Ibiza and Goa because they’re ironic, and some of the cooler, more intimate festivals in England, but only if the weather is good and they get a yurt.” She likes the idea of swanning around, being filmed just being, and not lifting a finger. Her PA will do all of the organising and they’ll hire someone to sort out the filming and do the techy stuff. Her accountant will take care of all of the expenses she can claim, like the travelling and clothes. Right now, she’s got more important things to worry about like the colour scheme and perfect name for her ‘brand’ and whether she should do a before-and-after fitness video. Telling people about what she is going to do, rather than just getting on and doing it, is the most exciting bit of any new project. Being seen and talked about while the idea is still fresh.

She can get loads of freebies to promote on her channel, from her equally clueless toff friends who pretend to run viable businesses in central London. These include flower shops, cupcake and artisanal bakeries, sex toys and boutique lingerie shops, birch/coconut water and small-batch gin pop-up shops, travelling tearooms aka afternoon tea, at events, cruise wear and coffee shops. Someone she knows has even got a food van at Kings Cross. She could never imagine why on earth would someone work that hard for so little? None of these ever break even.

Buddy has got his wholefood energy ball range to promote. Once he’s networked the fuck out of her friends and got his face on a wellbeing book cover, he’s outta there. Either that or he hopes to get paid off by her Daddy who doesn’t want a former escort in the family. Plan C is to continue with the sex work, albeit raising his game so it’s at the high end for fewer clients. The jackpot would be as companion to some titled old sugar mommy, but he needs to work his way up first. Failing that, he plans to get in on the ground floor when cannabis is legalised, but that looks like a lot of work.

This temporary rush of intense hormones when you think you are falling in love can lead to some very regrettable decisions, especially if you’re bored, stupid and used to getting your own way.

45. Cuckoo

There was just under an hour’s wait before my train and I really needed a rest and something hot and restorative. I love London, but it can get overwhelming pretty quickly. A sit-down lunch, I thought, but I didn’t want to spend too much, get looks of pity from strangers for eating alone, nor get booted out of the restaurant as soon as I had finished. So, I settled for one of those Vietnamese Street Food noodle bars that have sprung up everywhere. Cheap, tasty, quick. Light enough so I wouldn’t fall asleep on the train and end up north of Sheffield.

I am so over a posh burger.

It was quite busy, so I was seated next to a couple of men on a long communal table. I ordered a one-chili rated chicken and mushroom Pho with a coconut water. Occupying myself by playing on my phone, like everyone does these days, I couldn’t help but overhear them talking. I tried to be discreet but figured if they didn’t want to be heard, then they wouldn’t have had this conversation in public.

The Scottish man sat next to me had recently split up with his wife and it appeared he had moved in part-time with his friend, the man he was dining with. Fortunately, his ex had no intention of going back to the States, so he felt he wasn’t going to lose his children.

“Thanks fer renting oot yer back room tae us. Ah’ll no be there half the time.”

“It’s no problem mate. It’ll be like the old days. PS4, a couple of beers and a pizza.”

“We cannae afford tae sell the hoose an the weans are all settled in at school.”

“Jeez. Nah, you don’t want to be messing about with catchment areas now, not now they’re in school and house prices are shit. I thought we were going to get negative equity at one point.” He took a swig of Saigon beer. “How’s it gonna work then?”

“She calls this ‘birds nestin’, if ye can believe it. Ahm there Monday an Tuesday, she’s goat it Wednesday an Thursday. An then we take turns every weekend.”

“That’s actually a bloody good plan. I’ve never heard of it before. Less disruption for the kids and you get half the time each with them. And there no chance that their PE kit will be at the other house. Is it a California thing then?”

“Aye.”

They pause for a while to finish their beers and reflect on what’s been said.

“We agreed nae partners can come over, what with the weans an aw.”

“I bet that’s the last thing you want right now. It’s definitely over then?”

“Aye right, nae chance we get back together.”

“Sorry, mate.”

“Naw, it’s aw in the past. It’s for the weans sake.”

This seems such a civilised, if not temporary, solution to a desperate situation. To allow all parties breathing space and time to adjust. I hope it takes off in the UK and becomes as regular as weekend Dads taking their kids to the park and Maccy D’s on Sundays.

I thanked my waiter as he brought me a huge bowl of steaming hot noodles, then smiled sympathetically at one of the men as we made eye contact when they got up to leave.

*Thanks to ma pal Joni Hunter for the brilliant translation into Glaswegian.