78. Before Sunrise

“We need grapes, celery, olives, honey, crackers and three, maybe four types of cheese. A strong cheddar, something gooey, like a Brie or Camembert, a Cheshire or goats cheese and something unusual. I read they sell their own chutney here. See what they’ve got in.”

The boyfriend knows me so well. He knows I love cheese but the smell sometimes makes me nauseous. It’s a memory from the time I got food poisoning from one or a combination of shellfish and unpasteurised cheese. The whole experience made me so nervous I didn’t eat cheese for years afterwards. From eating cheese every day, to giving up dairy overnight. Thinking logically, it was probably the mussels that gave me food poisoning, rather than a few slices of cheese. Oysters are my favourite food these days and I’m back to eating cheese every day. You can get over anything with enough time and the right mindset.

I used to wonder what it would be like to run into you again. Would everything that happened between us be all water under the bridge? Would we pick up where we left off? The polite awkwardness of two people who’d seen each other at their most vulnerable but it all ending in a devastating, shattering, messy breakup? If we had met for the first time when we were older, would things have been different? Was it all bad timing?

I’d long-since forgotten about that summer until today. I’ve lived my whole life again since then. My name isn’t even the same.

To think I nearly gave up my University place to stay with you. You were the most important thing in my life and it now seems ridiculous that I would even comprehend missing such an opportunity. Even though I was absolutely sure we were forever, I couldn’t imagine three years apart. It was your mum who convinced me to go in the end. She said that if we were meant to be together then we would find a way. That if I didn’t go, I might resent you later. I did feel bitterness towards you, but not about college. I do regret though, not thanking her for being so kind to me, before she passed.

I think you must have recognised me before I noticed you. Something made me look over towards the back of the shop and there you were, holding a box. You were stood absolutely still. Frozen with fear. It was if you didn’t move, then you might be invisible. But I did see you, and although you had lowered you eyes, to avoid mine, I could see that you were more than frightened. Red-cheeked, shoulders hunched over, cowering, submissive. You were literally petrified. Terrified. Of me. Like a deer.

I didn’t feel awkward. I didn’t hate you. I felt nothing. How could I? I didn’t even know you. For a micro-second I thought about saying hello, but it seemed pointless. “Great shop. Sorry about your mum.” It all seemed so wrong somehow. You looked so scared that I didn’t want to put you through that. You might not have any control over me anymore but I wasn’t going to be mean about it. I’d had plenty of your anxiety and anger dressed up in teenage bravado the first time round. You’d lived in my head for far too long, and I wasn’t going to invite you back in. I’d rather not know anything about who you are now. The only cheese I ever saw you eat was Dairylea cheese spread. From that to this. We are strangers. I just want to remember us as we were. First loves. You broke my heart. We went to the same school and that’s as much as I’d ever admit out loud. What good would it do to muddy the waters now?

I walked over to the counter and placed the two boxes of cracker biscuits I’d chosen, next to the jar of olives. I said to the boyfriend,

“I’ll wait for you outside.” Then I left, without looking back.

A few minutes later, he came out of the shop, jute bag in one hand, sunglasses in the other and wandered over to the gift shop whose window I was looking into.

“Too cheesy for you? ” he asked.

“Something like that.” I replied.

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41. Moving On

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I’ve moved house more than a dozen times so I should be used to it by now. Sometimes I’m ready and raring to go.  Bored of the same old bus route and tired of my job. Pensive but excited, to walk down streets unknown and explore new places. Meet people with strange voices and reinvent myself. Other times I dread it.

I love this little house we live in now. It’s the best place we’ve ever lived. I’ve got my own bathroom and a room of my own to potter around in. The light streams into the bedroom in the morning and creeps around the house so we have to shut the curtains for afternoon tv. Hedges and farmland mean happy, jumping little birds and lowing cattle. Foxes wake me. I pretend the road noise is the sea and imagine that beyond the hedge is a sandy path down to our own beach cove.

But the landlord wants to sell, before interest rates go up, so we have to go. By the time this story is posted, we will be gone. We will have a new house, closer to town, with wooden floors overlooking the school playing fields. Last year he told us we could stay as long as we wanted to and when we didn’t want to live here any more he would sell it. A month after Christmas, I got the call that he wants to sell, so we have to be out in two months. I’m trying not to hate him. I don’t even know him. I’m imagining the drunken conversation he had over the festive period where he was talked into it. “What, you’re making £500 profit every month when you could sell up and get £100,000 profit in one go? You’re a fool.” There’s nothing I can do. It’s business. It’s not my fault.

Some people have lots of boyfriends; I have lots of houses. The similarities are comparable. It’s always new and exciting, never perfect, I live with the flaws until I forget, or they always irritate. I stay until it’s over or get asked to leave, and then life is never the same again. Someone else gets the old house and I find another one. Hopefully, the last person has loved and cared for it and I feel safe there. This new house is not like the old one. That house was the love of my life. This is 55-65% compatible. But we have to be out soon and it’s the best I could find right here, right now.

I know what my family and friends will say when they visit. “Oh Norm, it’s lovely. Much bigger than the last house.”

So now I’m spending money on things I can’t see. For checks to see if I’m a worthy tenant, when I’ve been renting for over 20 years already. They get to hold on to half a months wages in case I spill something.

I’ll lose my built-in wardrobe so have to decide whether to buy a cheap Ikea flat-pack now, or live with a portable rail until I’ve saved up enough to spend six times the cost to get a solid wood one. I could just add to my Ikea Kallax collection and store everything in ‘Really Useful Storage’ boxes for the foreseeable future.

By the time you read this I will have already moved in. I’ve been writing it for weeks, as I felt the changing emotions. One thing I never thought about was just how old I feel now. I cannot lift and carry as much as I used to. My lack of strength and stamina shocked me.

I’ve definitely had ‘renter’s regret’ and this has cost me more than my entire holiday fund for this year. So no trip abroad for us for the foreseeable future.

The sense of loss is worse that a break-up. I know this is the best house in the area for our budget at the time we were looking. It’s just not even close to perfect. I need to accept this and make it my home, and stop looking on RightMove at better houses that weren’t even available at the time we were looking.

I do know now that wooden floors are cold and noisy.

27. This is No County for Old Men

*Another love story for Valentine’s Day.*

His latest girlfriend is about twenty-three. They are always around twenty three. He’s got vinyl older than his last girlfriend. He’s lived around here for so long that he does worry that he might have dated one of their mums once.

Still blinking from the harsh light, straight out of University, or disillusioned with trying to make it at whichever field they’re in, he’s the saviour they all claim not to be looking for. They love his experience and maturity. The financial security. His tastes are more refined and he is calmer, more serious than most men their age. Their inexperience means he can teach them about relationships. Their energy for life keeps him feeling young and he doesn’t  feel threatened by ambitious women like younger, more insecure men do.

Whenever one of his friends finds out how old young his latest girlfriend is, there is the usual back slapping and shouts of, “you lucky bastard! How do you do it?” Followed by his reply of “that’s how I roll!”

 But the party always ends. 

alarm-clock-clock-time-minute-39900.jpegHe doesn’t even bother arguing anymore about “the next level.” What good would it do? Someone compared him to Don Draper, who only likes the beginnings of things, which was probably true. Brutal but true. If everyone could just be honest about things, life would be so much easier. For him.

They never seem to worry about it ending badly. It never usually does. They do the talking. He believes he may as well say kind words because he doesn’t want the whole relationship to be judged on how it ended. Some of the words said to him though, were like a knife in the belly.

His favourite time is always the minutes, hours or days between the first kiss and the first time you have sex.  He certainly couldn’t be blamed for wasting someone’s ‘best years’. He told them from day one, he wasn’t the babies and marrying type. It lasted as long as it did and that was that. He was often her first relationship and she was his last one. He was never surprised at how many of his ex-girlfriends married or had babies with the next man they went out with. He didn’t think there was any difference between ‘settling down’ and ‘settling’. As long as there were women out there who wanted to go out with him, he would continue to date them. Simple.

Most people only ever need one person in their life for all of their life. But when there is so much choice out there, how on earth was he to know when he’d found a woman who  was the closest to ever being ‘the one’, when she wasn’t even perfect? There was someone once who he could have seen himself growing old with, or rather, see her grow older. He was almost twice her age. The decision to leave was too difficult for either of them to make and he decided it on a coin toss. He knew he was always going to regret whichever choice he made. She doesn’t know that though.

He still haunted her on social media, under a pseudonym, in case he accidentally liked a post of hers from three years ago. It ended because she wanted children, and yet, eight years later, she still hadn’t had any. So how was that fair on him? They could have had that time together.

Six months after his brother died, he began to feel restless. Something in his life just didn’t feel right. He was dealing with his grief, but his girlfriend, although rock solid in her support, had started to question their future and the “life’s too short; we should just go for it” conversations were becoming more frequent.

It was true. You only got one life and he knew what he had to do. He liked several posts from the ghost and followed her account. When she followed him back, he sent her a direct message asking if she would like to meet him for coffee.