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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84. After Pride, Comes The Fall

I summer well. I know Welsh beaches and being a tourist in cities when all the locals have left. Stuck behind hedge-trimming tractors, I spy next month’s festivals evolving. From peas until apples, my life will adapt to farming time; I’ll become European.

My place in my family changes each year. Maybe one day I will be the matriarch.

I don’t want to interrupt the early-afternoon lull, but no-one heard the car door, or my suitcase skateboard wheels grinding. A dozen pairs of wellington boots of all sizes lined up to welcome me home. I step into the cool of the kitchen and gently pile up almost everything I own into the corner of the room. Even the water tastes different here. I wander, glass in hand, barefoot on stone, then oak, avoiding the squeaky board. I’m grounded now. The orange cat rubs its body against my bare calf and saunters out into the day. Such is a life of simple privilege.

Silence is a luxury and I drink it in. Clocks tick slower in the countryside. I lean over to kiss my aunt on her cheek and she stirs.

A different time, but at the same moment, traffic dribbled to nothing. A shimmering beast snaked closer, louder. Flanked by mounted police, the bare-chested Millwall crowd chanted with one voice, allowing itself to be gently guided towards the stadium gates. They belonged together. Accepted into the pride. A bit like me last month in London in the parade. I looked out for you. Then and now.

I hear dogs or children clomping down the stairs, and am smothered with their love saved up all year. After the “which one are you again?” and “haven’t you grown!”, my niece, Rosie, slips her hand in mine to show me her bedroom. Our bedroom. I’m on the bottom bunk for the next six weeks. She’s emptied a drawer for me and made some room on her dressing table. There’s a calendar on the back of the door with the days crossed off until today, which has a glittery pink star around the date.

My mother’s suitcase is at the foot of the bed. I won’t open it for over a week, until we go swimming. Everything I ever need is in this house. I take out my copy of ‘The Little Stranger’ and decide to read it again before the film release. A train ticket, that cost almost as much as a weekend in Denmark, falls out, losing its place. I remember that train journey. You saying you needed me. Now. I lived a whole life in those three hours. No signal. Voicemail full. I lost my place too that weekend.

I slip on a bangle I thought I’d forgotten, spray my wrists with a half-bottle of perfume, and push the suitcase back under the bed.

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.