I was running late and spotted that someone had put up one of those ‘Take What You Need’ posters on the noticeboard in the corridor. After class, Simon waited there while I talked to the tutor about my poor time management and why I needed an extension on my essay. As we walked to the refectory, I said, “which one did you take?”
“Courage,” he replied.
“Why’s that then?”
“I want to ask someone out but I think it’s too late. We might already be in the friendzone, so I’m a bit worried about risking it. What do you think I should do?”
“Well you picked courage for a reason. I think you should just go for it. If you don’t ask then you’ll never know.” I bit my lip and desperately hoped he wouldn’t notice that my cheeks were burning.
He didn’t reply for a couple of minutes then he said, “Do us a favour? Get me a latte please. I’ll be back in a minute,” and walked off towards the toilets.
He was beaming when he came back. “I did it and she said yes.”
My stomach filled with lead.
“Nice one,” I said. “When are you going out?” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, then fumbled in my backpack for a tissue. All I could think of was why did I even start this stupid conversation in the first place?
“Tomorrow night. Oh and thanks for the coffee. You alright? You look a bit deflated.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, a bit stressed out. I was just thinking about my essay.” I scrunched up the tiny piece of paper and rolled it between my finger and thumb.
“Oh ok, I never asked you what you took,” he said.
“Resilience,” I replied.
“That’s a tough one. Getting up after being knocked back.”
This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.
“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.
My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.
How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings, and my old University t-shirt.
“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.
“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.
A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.
He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.
“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.
He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”
“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.
I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.
Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?
Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.
Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.
My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?
Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.
Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.
This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love. All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.
We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.
No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.
I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.
I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.
It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?
“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”
The idea of Christmas in Hallmark rom-coms and Richard Curtis films. Coordinated, beautifully wrapped, perfect presents, on-time flights, a meetcute, the light dusting of pristine snow, plenty of parking, enough chairs around a generous dining table with a fabulous meal and a family who get on, are the ideals we enjoy over and over again.
Who wants reality when we’re trying to escape it?
So it’s 6am Christmas Day, and I’ve got period pains and a hangover. Fortunately, the kids didn’t see me just eat the mince pie that they left out for Santa. I tell them that he can’t drink at every house or he’ll need to pee and that will affect the logistics of his schedule. The turkey is still borderline frozen but it does fit into the oven, which is a major plus, and the children have already demolished their selection boxes. They’re whining about how rubbish their stockings were and it’s not fair that they have to wait until their teenage brother gets up and Grandma’s here before they are allowed to open their presents.
By 10am, Grandma has arrived and the first thing she tells me is that I should cut a cross in my sprouts. She says I’m brave for stopping dying my hair. I haven’t. The teenager thinks it’s ridiculous that he can’t play his new computer game on the big telly or in his bedroom, but has to stay in the living room all day with his own family. The little ones are struggling with the unboxing of their toys and all of those twisted wires wrapped around every single piece of plastic. I know we bought extra batteries, but just where did I put them?
No-one wants smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with bucks fizz because they’re all too full of Quality Streets and Miniature Heroes. I warn them that there won’t be any other food on offer until 3pm when we have lunch. If they’re really hungry they can have a couple of satsumas.
Noon. The nine-year-old has worked out the cost of the gifts and is upset because the teenager had more spent on his five small electronic gifts, than her twenty-five presents. She’s on a sugar crash from the breakfast chocolate and wants to start making things from her new craft kits. I make a few rounds of sandwiches and open a tub of Pringles. My head is pounding and I’m simultaneously glad I couldn’t find the batteries for the kids’ noisy toys but slightly concerned that I wasn’t supposed to have champagne and co-codamol together.
2pm. My husband’s brother and young niece arrive for lunch – without the elder one. She’s helping out in a homeless shelter today, mostly for the bragging rights and her college application. Our teenager is crestfallen. I put the nutroast back in the fridge. Apparently, shelters are turning away helpers on Christmas Day, but there too few volunteers to be found in the middle of snowy January. The cousins compare presents.
3pm. Lunch. The youngest has decided he doesn’t like turkey and wants some yorkshire puddings. So does everyone else, so I put a tray of Aunt Bessies in for five minutes. His plate now contains little spat-out blobs of food, (because Christmas Dinner is “skusting”) including cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, red cabbage, stuffing and turkey. He eats six pigs in blankets, some carrots and gravy. Grandma isn’t impressed.
4pm. I get to sit down for the first time for more than 10 minutes all day. The men are in the kitchen washing up, playing with the new coffee machine and putting the world to rights. I’ve banned all talk of Brexit in the house, so they decide to go up to the teenager’s bedroom with him to check out his new computer game and chat about the state of the nation. Mum is gently snoring in the best armchair. The kids seem engrossed in some Pixar film on TV. I’d like nothing more than a hot bath and to get into my new pyjamas, but that’s not going to happen.
5pm. I put out some cold cuts and pickles, cheese, crackers a few bowls of crisps and mince pies onto the dining table. That’s all I’m doing for the rest of the day.
6pm. His brother is leaving to pick up the daughter and take mum home. I give them the untouched vegan nut roast to take with them. I reassure them that I didn’t go to any trouble finding it. They don’t need to know that I bought it online, paid a premium for next-day delivery and had to take a day off work to wait in for the non-time-specific refrigerated truck.
We decide to play the board game that the little one got from Santa. I don’t quite understand the rules but it has something to do with which animal can eat the most before it poops. I promise him that we will definitely find some batteries for his police car tomorrow.
7pm. The teenager tells me that his dad had four espressos “to test the machine” and that is why he’s got an upset stomach. Nothing whatsoever to do with drinking since 10am.
8pm. Unbelievably, the little one decides he’s tired and wants to go to bed. The teenager says he will make sure he brushes his teeth and will read him a story. That leaves me and the nine-year-old to have control of the TV and watch our favourite Christmas special. We make some hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows and have a lovely peaceful evening of mum and daughter time together.
10pm. Bedtime. I check the doors, the hob and turn off the Christmas tree lights. All three of my boys are in the teenager’s bedroom playing some unsuitable computer game. Fortunately, the little one is fast asleep. I scoop him up and put him in his own bed, and leave the other two to their game.
Soon, this perfect day will be a wonderful memory, which is the best gift I could ever wish for.