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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86. Early Adopters

“They’ll make you whatever you want to eat here, Grandad.”

The menu is quite impressive. Every egg dish you could think of, either duck or hen. Bacon and sausages of a named breed from a Norfolk farm. At least six kinds of tea. Runner-up in a barista championship. Bakery on the premises. I can see a royal warrant before too long.

“I think that’s them.” I say. His Grandad turns stiffly to see the camera crew that’s just walked in. “Your interview’s not for an hour, so we’ve got loads of time. Have you decided what you’re having?”

It’s no coincidence that this restaurant is called ‘RE.’ It’s both the initials of the original company that owned it, and the beginning of every word used to describe the concept and evolution of the building.

His hands tremble a little as he holds the paper, but his eyesight and hearing are way better than mine, thanks to modern technology. “I’m going to try a fried duck egg, thick cut bacon, field mushrooms, home grown tomatoes and toast, and I want some marmalade. If it’s that same marmalade that you got me at Christmas, then I want another jar to take home with me.”

Half an hour later, we’re sat in that contemplative silence you get when you’re comfortable in each other’s space. He hasn’t set foot in here for over fifty years.

He’s studying the 1970s school chair, stroking the grey and red heavy felted wool fabric on the seat. “These are just like the blankets we had in the war.”

I think of festival stalls piled high with old hospital blankets in mint green or bubblegum pink. Quietly stored for decades in a building just like this one, waiting to live temporarily in a gated community. Life had no meaning outside of those walls. Cloaked, comforted, cherished, then casually discarded.

He’s too polite to ask why the floor is concrete and pipe works are exposed. Air ducts instead of a ceiling, overhead cisterns with pull chains in the loos. Why none of the taps match along the long institutional, animal trough sink. The amber, oval transparent bar of Pears soap with the unmistakable smell like spicy coal tar that transports you back to childhood. A towel machine on a roll next to an airblade hand dryer.

He points out parts of the warehouse where industrial machinery once stood, and why it looks like there’s a door to nowhere halfway up the wall. The hoists that swung out over the canal. How two men lay on their backs on the boat and “legged it” by walking along the inside of the brick tunnel to move the boat along, in the years before the towpath was built. No-one cared, then or now, how hard the job was. The only story everyone wants to hear is how he saved a man’s life by pulling him out from a grain bin, where he would have otherwise suffocated.

I couldn’t have predicted that audio cassettes and vhs tapes would make a comeback so soon, but it’s only a brief glimpse into his world. The working red telephone box in the foyer, next to the second-hand bookshop. A booth selling sweets by the quarter and a florist with exotic blooms for £4 a stem. Offices of companies that only exist online, next to artist space, the obligatory bicycle repair shop and a combination wine and vinyl warehouse, with barely anything for less than a tenner. A cut-throat barber shop complete with tweed knickerbocker-wearing Victorian gents and their twizzly moustaches, straight out of ‘Peaky Blinders.’

Sanitised nostalgia, packaged and sold back to us in red and white striped paper bags for more than we originally paid.

Even this meal didn’t exist back then.

A woman, looking like she’s about to do a Ted talk, wearing loose flannel trousers, a silk shirt, and an expensively scruffy hairstyle strides over, followed by a younger, nervous youth carrying a clipboard and phone. Their lanyards have the name of the TV production company on it. She sticks out her hand and says, “William? I’m Jessica. Pleased to meet you.”

76. Red

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The tips of my fingers are stained from pitting cherries, as I meticulously push the stone out through each cherry into an empty wine bottle with a chopstick.

My lips look bruised from cherry juice and drinking the wine that used to be in the stone-filled bottle.

“This is going to be a damn fine pie.” I say.

“That’s a damn fine moustache.” She says, chuckling at my wine smile.

Her fingertips are purple from peeling the beetroot.

“We should have worn some CSI gloves for this. What are they gonna think we’ve been up to?”

“I dunno. Tell em our blood, sweat and tears went into this meal.” She replied.

“Good point. It has been pretty hot today. It’s always hotter in London. We’re the red hand gang.” I start singing the tune from what I thought was the theme music to the old 70s kids show, ‘The Red Hand Gang’ but she interrupts it by saying, “That’s the ‘Banana Splits’.”

“Oh yeah, so it is. Hey Siri.” I say, raising my voice a little, “Play the theme tune to The Red Hand Gang.”

Siri can find anything, except the songs I want.

“Have you ever asked Siri what zero divided by zero is?” asks Diana.

“You have no friends.” I reply in a half-robot, half-Cookie Monster voice. “What did you get from the deli?”

“Creme fraiche for the horseradish cream. Goats cheese for the beetroot. Clotted cream for the cherry pie and some mixed mushrooms for the steaks.”

This is a girly weekend, just the four of us. We met on a train from Leeds to London, sat at the same table when the train stopped in a terrible snowstorm. It was somewhere just north of Peterborough, due to ‘a body on the line’. During the next six hours, we shared what snack food we had, donated tampons to strangers, did the crossword together to save our phone batteries and generally put the world to rights. After we got off the train, we went for coffee, to warm ourselves up and decided to keep in touch through twitter, and, eight years later, here we still are.

One New Years Eve, we talked about how difficult it was to maintain friendships as adults. That friendships drift, it gets harder to remember why you still liked each other, and all you seemed to talk about is how good life used to be or your kids. Well, we made a pact to not let those threads fray. We decided then and there to meet up at least once a year for a weekend reunion and make our own, new memories.

Jenny’s sister lives in London but she’s away this weekend, so we have her flat to ourselves. It’s nice to have the freedom outside of a hotel room for a change. She’s gone to St Pancras to pick up Claire, who is a bit scared of the tube. Diana and I are prepping the evening meal.

So, tonight is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Season 2 marathon. If we have to pull an all-nighter, then so be it. Tomorrow night is a play called ‘Red’ with Alfred Molina playing Mark Rothko. If we’re not too hungover, we’ll have a wander down to the Tate to look at some abstract expressionism,  to get ourselves ready for the play, after a couple of Bloody Marys, and avocado or eggs on toast at that Caravan brunch place at Kings Cross or get the Thames Link to Blackfriars and walk to the other one near to Borough Market.

“Did you see the new Millicent Fawcett statue outside the Houses of Parliament when you went out” asks Diana.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I went to the unveiling of the “Women of Steel” sculpture in Sheffield I love it. Proper Rosie the Riveter.”

“Outside the City Hall? Near Cole Brothers? I think I saw it on TV.”

“I wish I had stacks of green paper in my red right hand.” I say half- singing.

“Ooh, Did I tell you? I made a donation to that Suffragette statue fund. The one that’s being made where I live. This is good this. Get this. I was saving it for later, but I’ll tell them again. Do you remember that time ages ago when I was going out with Robert?” she says.

I screw up my eyes trying to remember him. We don’t generally meet anyone else’s partners or family. It’s just the hardcore of us four. “Did he used to work away a lot?”

“Yeah, that’s him. You remember that time I told you about that woman who started shouting at him in the pub and her friend said to me, “Don’t let him film you love, he’ll put it on youporn”?”

“You had a lucky escape there.” I say.

“Too right I did. I never sent him any pictures, but, we did have one of those couple’s vibrators, that he could control with his phone when he was working away”

Nothing surprises me with Diana. That time she said she’d won 500 dollars on a slot machine and then spent it on hand-feeding a lion in the zoo. When she fell and broke her ankle whilst abseiling and Prince William was the pilot in the air sea rescue helicopter. The time she got chatting to one of the ‘Real Housewives’ in the ladies room at the airport and they got on so well, that she paid for Diana’s upgrade to Business Class so they could sit together on the plane, and then offered her a job as a PA. All true.

“Well anyway” she continues. “There was this class action lawsuit over this vibrator as the manufacturers were collecting data on the users. They could tell what setting I had it one, how long it was used for and what my body temperature was. I got £5,000 compensation for it.”

“Brilliant.” I say.

“So, then after the lawsuit had been in the papers, Robert phoned me. A year after he dumped me, for not ‘being adventurous enough’ he rings me. Me! Not adventurous. Well, he wants to get together for a drink. Well, I’m with Paul now, so I say no. That’s when I got that new number. I don’t know why I didn’t block him before though. So he rings me again the following night and says that he thinks he is entitled to half of the vibrator money because he was the one using his phone to control it, his privacy was violated too!”

I nearly spit out a mouthful of Malbec, trying not to laugh at the incredulity of it all.

“What? After what he did to that woman with the revenge porn?” I’d have told him to do one.” I say.

“I did.” she says. “Even better than that, I told him I was donating it all. Then I reeled off a few women’s charities that I knew would piss him off. I said that if he didn’t leave me alone, I was going to put a metal plaque with his name on it on a bench, saying ‘with thanks for helping me’ outside that sexual health clinic.”

“If he rings you again, tell him that it wasn’t him controlling the vibrator, it was someone else. He can’t prove it was him unless he recorded it and then you can have him for recording a private act or voyeurism it something.”

“I’m definitely saying that if he finds out my number and rings again.” She says.