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.

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70. Hitch

“I don’t know how they had the nerve. I really don’t.” Louise takes a big sip of her wine, almost a gulp. “And to think of all that effort we went to. It cost us nearly £800. What a fucking cheek.”

I take the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the metal bucket, wipe the drips from the bottom of it with the white cloth that’s loosely tied around the neck, and top up our glasses.

Our waitress arrives with a small bowl of fat, bright green olives, a basket of sourdough, and a shallow saucer of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

“Thank you.” I say to the waitress, smiling at her. I offer Louise a briny olive, and she prods at one with a little wooden toothpick then pops it into her mouth.

“And they never said anything?

Louise shakes her head, chewing in that peculiar way people do when they’re negotiating a fruit stone with their tongue.

“We wouldn’t have even known until the actual day if Pete’s brother hadn’t phoned us. He thought we were invited to the actual wedding. Apparently there was about 50 people there. It was a proper sit-down meal with wedding cake and champagne toasts and everything. I mean, I know people have a rehearsal dinner with close family the night before, but it’s not on is it? To actually get married and then have another wedding the day after but not tell the second wedding people? It’s like they had a fake wedding just for the photos and presents.”

“I bet Pete wasn’t best pleased.” I say.

“No he fucking wasn’t. When he found out he was livid. Two days we booked off work for that, plus hotel, and a new suit. I didn’t get a new dress, but I got some new shoes and a bag. This one actually. ”

She hold up a baby blue, butter-soft Coach hobo bag.

“That’s gorgeous.” I say, reaching for it to feel the leather.

“The actual wedding had a free bar. The fake wedding had one glass of prosecco each and the buffet ran out of food. Pete says he went over to the table where the glasses of prosecco were to get us one, and there was a bloke already there, who…”  she raises and pushes her palm into a stop signal for emphasis, “get this, Pete says he saw this bloke neck two glasses down then carry off another four with him.”

“Classy.” I say, disdainfully. “What is it with free booze that makes people so bloody greedy and selfish?”

“Dunno” she says. “Cos it’s free I s’pose.”

“Did they give a reason why they did it?”

“Well, apparently, the person from their church who they wanted to do the ceremony wasn’t ordained, so they decided to have the registry office one the day before, then their friend could still “marry them” the day after. That’s their excuse anyway.” She does air quotes when she says “marry them.”

“That’s fair enough I guess.” I say, “But it still doesn’t explain why they weren’t upfront about it. Why not just tell people? They could have made up their own minds then about whether they wanted to go or not.”

Louise sighs. “It just made us feel like we were worse than second-best. Like leftovers. If they had just told us that they were getting married, and only having a dinner for close friends and family, then it might have been ok. But I don’t get their logic of not telling us at all though. It’s not like were weren’t gonna find out.”

I dabble a piece of bread into the oil and vinegar mixture and chew it.

“I’m not gonna say anything to them though. No point.” She says. ” It’s done now. Bloody annoying though. I wouldn’t dare. Cheeky bastards.”

Louise glances at her phone for a second, taps the screen and swipes it. “They didn’t have a wedding list. It was one of those ‘your presence is present enough, but we really want you to give us some money so we can go travelling’ invitations. So, we were going to give them £100 and a bottle of champagne, but when Pete found out, he took £50 out of the envelope and put the champagne in our fridge.”

“Good for him.” I said emphatically. “What was the cake like?”

The atmosphere immediately changes, like it does just before a thunderstorm. I feel like I’ve said the wrong thing and started a chain reaction.

“No cake. Just one of those stupid ‘candy buffets’ with the jars of sweets and little scoops with the stripy paper bags. So, all we’d had all day was crisps, some sausage rolls and haribos. So not only was there not enough food, we didn’t even get a cup of tea or any wedding cake. You know what I’m like when I don’t have any food. Especially when I’ve had a drink. Well, we didn’t hang around for long. We left at about three and told Pete’s brother that we were going to check into the hotel and get some food, and that we would be back later. So we went to the hotel, got changed, had a burger and chips and a couple of beers. I had a nap, Pete had a shower and we watched a bit of telly, but we didn’t actually go back to the wedding do until about eight o’clock, in our jeans, just to show our faces and have a bit of a dance.”

“I can’t fault you.” I said.

“Oh did I tell you, we’re going to Copenhagen next weekend.” She says, excitedly.

“No I didn’t know. It’s Letitia’s wedding next Saturday. You’re not going then? To be honest, I’d rather be in Copenhagen. I love it there.” I reply.

“Oh yeah, I remember you saying. We got an invite but I think it was just out of politeness really. We can’t go because Pete’s brother used to go out with Letitia and what with them looking so similar, he thought it might be awkward. Some of the old dears might get them muddled up and you don’t want to see the face of your ex on your wedding day. So we said we were on holiday. I’ll send them a card with a twenty quid Markses voucher inside.”

“Yeah, we won’t stay long at the evening do. It’s my 5k on Sunday.”

“Oh, that breast cancer run for your auntie. I miss her I do, she was so nice.”

We raise our glasses in a silent toast to absent friends and the conversation takes a natural pause whilst we process.

55. This is my truth, tell me yours.

“You know the time to act is now.

Before the sands of time run out.”

‘ Game On’ by Catatonia

Whenever I’ve yearned for real change in my life, I have had to take a leap of faith and just do it. Dithering and procrastinating gave me more excuses. Over-thinking and micro-planning what could go wrong or reasons not to do it. Fear of change. Am I bored? Did I really want something else or did I just want the pain of this situation to end? I knew I craved more but wasn’t prepared to put in the effort. I knew what I didn’t want but didn’t know what I actually did want.

Life never quite works out how you imagine it would. Roads not travelled and all that. I can try to do anything I want but can’t actually do everything I want.

I’m told I’m both a brave and an incredibly stupid “cards on the table”, “this is how I feel” bold statement kinda person. Go big or go home. People who are important in my life know they mean a lot to me, because I tell them.

And I fail so, so often. I get it wrong such a lot. Then rumination, insomnia, resolution, acceptance, peace. The past is the past. I was a different person then. It’s so much easier to forgive than to hold onto the bile of a grudge.

When I read an article about ‘The Top Five Regrets of The Dying’ by Bronnie Ware, it struck a chord. The biggest (or only) regret I still have is not thanking those people who cared about me when I was at my lowest. It spurs me daily to pass on the baton of kindness they showed me to others.

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Somewhere between taking things slowly, savouring every mouthful and the joy of life is for living is where I want to be.