96. Ex-Directory

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I’m browsing the many tiny, gorgeous shops in one of my favourite places in London, St Pancras International Railway Station. I don’t mind that my husband has just texted me to say that his meeting ran late so he will be at least another hour. I texted back “I want my time with you” as a joke.

People watching is utterly fascinating. So many untold stories around me. I can always pop next door to the British Library for a bit if I get bored. I might even jump on the Thameslink to Blackfriars. It’s only three stops to The Tate. But I like it here for now. People can be who they want to be in a terminal. Passing through from one life to another. Some wait all week for Friday night, so they can wear their own skin for a few hours. I feel like I could disappear in plain sight in this very building.

On nights when I can’t sleep, I pretend I have been dropped off here with plenty of money, my passport and a ticket for Eurostar or a flight from Heathrow. I have to get everything I could possibly need for a week away. I only have a couple of hours or so, so I can’t mess about. I pick out a Cath Kidston travel bag and run across to Kings Cross to grab a Harry Potter t-shirt, Kiehl’s shampoo and conditioner, then walk up the hill behind the big swing for a pair of Sweaty Betty leggings for lounging, a hoodie and pair of Nikes. A handbag or skirt from Jigsaw. Trousers or jacket from Carhartts. There isn’t time to linger in Space NK. Eve Lom. Tweezerman. I can get the rest of my toiletries from Boots. I can even buy a laptop if I need to. Fat Face do a nice line in a budget capsule wardrobe so with a bit of Joules, Oliver Bonas and some M&S knickers, I’m done. My usual Mac makeup and some Jo Malone and I think I can manage very well thank you very much.

I do want time for treats, so pick up paprika almonds and Godiva chocolate from one of the boutique food shops. Maybe a pretty notebook and pen from Paperchase or that new shop whose name begins with K. A couple of novels definitely. Oh, and a smoked cheese, jambon and cornichon on sourdough for the journey. Artisan raspberry lemonade, only for the bottle really, and two packets of lemon chewing gum. I can only imagine what the new designer boutiques will be like.

I’m quietly enjoying the free, spontaneous concert with a growing crowd, (which includes a couple of British Transport Police officers) as an elderly man plays Chopin quite beautifully, so delicately, on the battered, brightly painted school upright piano. Then, I hear my name.

“Ellie? Ellie? Is that you?”

I turn and smile automatically to a woman beaming at me. I don’t recognise her, but she clearly knows me. She’s wearing one of those navy shift dresses favoured by professional businesswomen, Queen Mum low heels and a small string of freshwater grey pearls. She’s around my age and her beautiful salon-blonde hair is overdue for a cut. A bright red Radley laptop bag hangs from the crook of her arm, and I notice she’s wearing a Brietling watch.

“It is you! It’s me, Sadie. From Leeds. God, you haven’t changed a bit. I’d recognise you anywhere.” He hand clutches her chest then she lightly touches my forearm. It’s a genuine smile, alright. But, I’m racking my brains to recall her. I don’t remember her at all but it must have been a while ago as I haven’t spent more than a weekend in Leeds for nearly ten years.

“It’s really good to see you again. Have you got time before your train for a quick drink so we can swap numbers and catch up a bit?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ve just arrived actually. What about that place on the left up the escalator? You know, that restaurant bar that does the great burgers and sometimes has a singer?” I say.

“Perfect.” She says. “Still only the best for you, I see.”

The rush-hour crowd prevented us from talking very much on our way up to the bar. I still couldn’t place her, but then again, I did smoke a lot of pot in college, so between that and the booze, it was hardly surprising.

Sadie ordered us both a gin and tonic, being very specific with her requirements.

“Hendrix or Sipsmith, please, with Fevertree tonic. Oh and a slice of cucumber or sprig of rosemary. No lemon or mint. And a bowl of green olives if you have them, please, if not, some peanuts.”

We were friendly and had a lot in common. It was pleasant enough, in the way that you are when you meet someone for the first time who you have no intention of ever seeing again. Like having a drink with a delegate. I was reminded of things I’d totally forgotten about, so it was a nice nostalga trip.

Forty five minutes later, we ‘mwah mwah-ed’ our airkisses, hugged and did that “lets do lunch” thing of promising to keep in touch. I waved her goodbye and stayed to finish my drink. Because of our shared past, we had been able to keep the conversation going, but she still had no idea that I didn’t know who she was. I’d asked her lots of questions about her life but told her virtually nothing about my own. I could have told her anything as I had zero interest in actually pursuing a friendship. I was just killing time.

There had to be a reason why we didn’t carry on our University friendship. Through our mutual friends, she could have found me anytime. So why didn’t she then? Why now?

I googled her, looked at her old college facebook photos then texted my oldest friend to try to shed some light on who she was.

A few minutes later, I had my answer.

I’d completely and totally forgotten the reason why I moved halls in that second term. I must have believed my own story that the original block of rooms wasn’t a good fit for me, and I would be better off in a different block of flats a few streets away, where my friends were. The University accommodated my request quickly, as there was someone else who was waiting to swap into my block.

I do remember the boy though, but not his name or what he looked like. Just how I felt about him. One night, Sadie had convinced him that if I did fancy him, I would have made a move, so clearly I didn’t think of him in that way. I, however, thought that if he liked me, then he would have asked me out. Him sleeping with Sadie proved he didn’t like me how I wanted him to. How clear cut everything seems to be in youth. Our assumptions and opinions as fact.

When I found out, my immediate reaction was that they could have each other. Alpha status proven to me and the other girls, she got bored and ditched him. This what what she did, apparently. I wanted nothing more to do with either of them ever again, unless I had to, hence the move to another block of halls.

Here she was. Oblivious. Chatting away as if we were old friends.

In the dimly lit bar, I listened to a young woman sing jazzy folk songs, accompanied by an older man on an acoustic guitar. She reminded me a little of the lounge singer from ‘Lost In Translation’. It’s always twilight or the other side of midnight in their world.

I sipped my drink and pondered on how different things might be this time round. I’d have to keep her completely separate from everyone else in my life, of course. Should I? Can I even be bothered? No, I couldn’t risk it. Again. I went with my gut feeling. I knew what I had to do.

A couple of swipes on my phone. Block. Delete.

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93. Woke

A rumour is like a tissue in a washing machine.

The description on the flyer included phrases like, “challenging preconceptions of intimacy… exploring the gaze of perpetual surveillance… sexual fluidity and modern companionship.”

How did twelve photos, taken on different nights, of my friend James and I asleep in his bed, end up in a major photography exhibition?

Simple, really. I spent a lot of time at Karen’s house and was often too wasted to go home. Someone else may have been kipping on the sofa, or I didn’t want to wake up wheezing with the cat sat on me. Karen’s bedroom was so small, her bed was pushed up against the wall. It required a limber bed mate, which I am most certainly not. When I get out of bed, I walk like I rode a horse the day before. Her housemate, James had a big bed and he never came home that first night I stayed over. I knew he would be ok with it. “Anytime. Mi casa es tu casa.”

Another night, he did come home, very late or early, depending on whose point of view you take. He was drunk enough to knock things over, but still funny enough to say “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Slurring, he instructed me to “Move over” then flopped down onto the bed, one arm in, one arm out of his coat. A few hours of snoring later, I took off his boots and left a pint glass of water on the bedside table.

We just carried on. It was easy and  felt comfortable. Neither of us was going out with anyone, so there were no jealous lovers to worry about. We didn’t fancy each other and were mature enough to not ruin our friendship by doing something regrettable.

The contented bliss of platonic sleeping in our clothes, drunk or stoned. Cosy, trusting, familial. Synchronised breathing. I was usually the little spoon. When he snored, I’d whisper for him to “turn over”, then place my hand on his back and his breathing would quieten. He was too polite to tell me if I ever snored.

Over home-made lasagne, garlic bread pizza, untouched salad and two bottles of montepulciano d’abruzzo, Karen admitted that she’d taken photographs of us two sleeping over the last six months. They were beautiful. So pure. I cried. It never occurred to James or me that taking our pictures whilst we slept was an invasion of our privacy, so we happily signed the consent forms she provided.

We weren’t expecting so many people to be as insistent as they were in telling us their opinion about our non-sexual relationship. Our friendship was scrutinised. We were asked how long we’d been a couple. Baffled, we said we weren’t, so it was assumed we were friends with benefits or one of us was gay or asexual. He lies in bed took on different meanings. My nonchalant, blasé denial obviously meant I was clearly trying to hide something. People hinted that I had friend-zoned James and must have been leading him on all this time. They felt sorry for him as he must have been so frustrated. Others insinuated that he was a potential predator, concluding that I had been both stupid and very lucky. How could we not know we were being photographed until afterwards? That the photos were clearly staged because men and women could obviously never be friends. Did we not realise it was bad luck for our souls to take book of the dead photos? These innocent snapshot observations became everyone’s business.

I stopped sleeping over after the exhibition. That phase had passed. It no longer felt right. I didn’t like being propelled into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and people didn’t believe me when I said this was something natural. I was there. I should know. But, the truth became just one of many opinions.

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.