From the 28th January - 1st April 2014 I uploaded a chapter each week of a new novella. I posted the chapters just after writing, so this is a ROUGH first draft.
For more information read my blog post "a gift from me to you this new year."
Join me in my experiment. Comments and criticism welcome! (Please note which chapter you are commenting on.)
A Novella by Linda Black
The house was silent, as it always is at this point in the morning, apart from the clink of the spoon collecting cereal on the way to Jacob’s mouth. Munch and think, munch and think, scrape; think about what? He didn’t think as much anymore while he munched. Or maybe it was that he had too much to think about. Well, keep munching anyway. “Jake-gob!” And silence again, for the last perfect moment of the day. Wait for it… and here he comes, heavy Henry on the stairs as if he hadn’t lost all that weight. Or perhaps he’d put enough back on in muscle with all that weight training. “Jake, you in the office today?” Just wait for Hen to step through the carpeted hallway and onto the linoleum kitchen, then you can nod. And keep munching. Well? No, not yet. What’s keeping him today? A step. Ok, we’re on a roll. And there’s the sticky clicking change in texture, so nod. “Did you order a train ticket?” Whoa, stop nodding. Shake your head. God, he’s put even more gel on today.
“What’s with the gel?” Henry always puffs up when someone mentions his appearance, so he forgets everything else and drops the tickets on the table. Where are they for? “I’m in early, but got a half day for Angie moving in to her new place.” Paignton? Who’d want to go there? Might as well chuck ‘em. “Why you up-”
“Nah, keep ‘em. Might be Angie's. She said she might get something delivered here because of the move, didn't she?” Fine, change of course from the bin to the table. Hopefully she’ll see them with all this mess. “Got my interview today. Was thinking I could nab a lift in with you.”
"Fine. You going to help with the move after?" The cereal's gone soggy. Great.
"Me? Help move your girlfriend's stuff? While you two get distracted and christen the place? No thanks, Jake-gob." No. Can't eat soggy cereal. Definitely too much to think about. "Hey, hey. What you doing with that? There's still half a bowl. Give it here." Maybe it wasn't the weight training after all. Stop thinking. Nothing to munch on. "What? No comment? Jake-gob? I'm eating your leftover, soggy cereal, with your used spoon. Nothing?" The stares at one another reveal nothing. "You're supposed to be helping me stick to good eating. And you normally gag when I use your cutlery."
"Yeah. I'm gagging inside." Very true, but for other reasons. Does a week or two really matter? Isn't it the same thing? Would have thought that's what Angie's priest would say. But, then, he wouldn't even give the option in the first place. Angie had to be catholic, didn't she? It wasn't an issue when she didn't go to mass. Ever. Catholic with Sunday morning lie-ins, and no other scruples. Just this one. That's not the issue, though. It wouldn't matter if Angie was a better fit. Or life as we know it wasn't about to be wiped out. Uh, changed. Completely
"OK, I'll come help." At least loneliness will never be an issue. And you can't say you're bored if you're busy all the time. "Gob? Do you want help or not?" Crap, got distracted. Breakfast was supposed to be a break from thinking.
"Yeah, man. I need it. That girl has a ridiculous amount of things. I don't even know why she has half of it, but there are about fifty boxes to shift." How can one little person cause so much hassle and create so much crap?
"With just your car? This is not going to be fun." Got that right. Hen clashing the dishes into the sink cuts into the numbness that creeps up every time there's a pathetic review of this stupid situation. "I need something else to get the taste of that out of my mouth. Do we have any bread?" Point to the bread container that Angie bought the house for Christmas and always has stocked, just in case she gets peckish when she's over. "Empty." Guess Angie's distracted too. "What's wrong with Angie? She's always got a bagel or something in there." Unless Henry's got to it first. "Oh, better yet, do you think Angie will bake some cupcakes in the new place tonight? That would be great payment. I love it when Angie's got a bun in the oven. Eh? Eh?" Only one guy is laughing in this room. The other is about to hurl. And not stop. Catch yourself on, before he does. "It's just a joke, mate." These stares reveal everything. "Oh, shit." Yep. "Seriously?" A new anticipatious silence has been invented. Broken by the doorbell. "Shit, I'll get it."
Click clack on the linoleum, dampened by the carpet, then the over cheerful voice of the post man and Hen's awkward laugh, taking far too long to shut the door again. It's a good thing these train tickets are orange. Might actually notice them again to ask Angie about them. When's she going to Paignton anyway? "Package for Angie." Henry walks back in, but pauses, thinking he's put his foot in it again. "I didn't mean... looks like it's a DVD. Or very thin book. I'll just put it on the table under the noticeboard so we remember to give it to her. Want me to pin those tickets above the package so we remember them?" Henry grabs them, but doesn't get to keep his hold. "What? Did you remember you had actually bought them?"
"They're for April." April? What's happening in April? Why would Angie order tickets so early?
"What? Next April? That's ten months away. Can you book tickets that far in advance?" No. Can you? Well these weren't bought in advance anyway. Oh-eight. 2008? That's ridiculous, why would anyone have train tickets from 2008? And they've been used. There's the little punched out circle. Hen goes for the tickets again and gets them this time. "2008? Is that a mistake?" Who knows.
"It's quarter to. I'm leaving in five minutes if you want that lift." Lunch. No bread. What's in the fridge?
"Right, mate." Back to business and Henry heads out to find a mirror to check his hair one last time. No, he stops. "About before. Angie. You alright?" Not the time. "What you going to do?" Not the time. "Have you discussed it with her? Like, do you know what she might want to do? Ah, Henry. Five minutes and you start this?
"Yeah, she's keeping it." Now you don't know what to say.
"So, you're stuck?" Nicely put. "Not a chance she'd think of..."
"She did. But she found out too late."
"So she's pretty far on?"
"No. Only about nine weeks. But after eight weeks it changes definition, so she felt like she'd be killing it instead of just..." It's clear that Henry knows as little about all this as Jacob.
"Right. So that's it. You're going to be a Dad?" Dad? That's what it means to have a baby. It makes someone a father. With responsibilities and someone depending on you. Not just one person, though. There's always the mother. The father is stuck with the mother no matter what. Always linked with that one person because of that thing you did together that made something else. Someone else. And that decision isn't even left to the father. Sure, he chose to have sex, but he didn't choose the end result of fatherhood.
"Are you ready?" Time to cut the deep thinking and get to work to think about nothing. Who ever thought that work would be the relaxing place?
"To be an Uncle? Or for the interview? Uncle Henry, I like it."
"You'd be lucky to get to hold the child if Angie has anything to do with it."
"What? She loves me. She finds me comical. That's a compliment in my eyes. It's what I'm going for. She gets me. But, yeah, this interview will be fine. If you can get in, I can do it. This Janice Price won't know what hit her. Charm, that's what."
"Ha! You've got Price? Oh, man. I don't know anyone who was hired by Janice Price. She's the only female supervisor. She doesn't hire women because she doesn't want to show favouritism and discrimination and she doesn't hire men because she hates them. She's like this huge feminist obsessed with equal opportunity. So nobody has a chance."
"That makes no sense." Playing with the obscure train tickets in your hands isn't going to help that.
"You know those have been used? They've got the little punch from the conductor. Are you sure they came through the letter box?"
"They were lying underneath it. Man, what am I going to do about this interview? I need this job. Or I can't pay the rent if this bank sticks with that due date in August for my loan like they're threatening. Hey, when's Angie's due date? Could be perfect timing for you two if you want rid of me and she has to move in."
"Aw, Hen, shit. I haven't even thought about any of that. Angie hasn't even told me when she's supposed to have it. And she's just signed the lease on this new place." Keep it distant. As far away from now and here as possible. Staring at the tickets is the only thing both boys can do right now. Paignton would be good. Timbuktu would be better.
"That cat bobble head is broken again."
"What? How many times did you tap it for luck this morning?"
"Only ten. Hey, that's how I noticed the tickets. The head fell down on top of them. Well, rolled." It's not even a cat for good luck. They've got the moving arms, haven’t they? Not heads.
"Cats. That's it! Price loves cats. But it's like a secret, because she doesn't want to be seen as a stereotype, and a woman living alone with a cat is a big one to her."
"Yeah, come on, cat lady."
"Just mention cats somehow. That's how you'll win her over. But don't be obvious. She'll be suspicious of anything you say, so make sure you don't push it."
"Don't worry. I've got it. Cats." Henry's smug smile never comforts anyone.
"Let's go." However, Henry's panic is humorous, even after a heavy morning. "You've wasted the last five minutes. I can't be late if Price is definitely covering this shift."
Running out the door isn't going to stop the time you've already missed. "I just have to check my hair." Should have thought of that before you brought up the impending future again. A quick comment from Henry is never a short conversation. He extends any banter or human contact he has for as long as possible. He never seems to get sick of the same things or people, he's just happy to be a part of them. It's no wonder he took it so hard when the night club photography company fired him. He wanted to be in every photo to mark the new friendships he had formed. He may have invented selfies. And he got pretty good at them. It's not his fault he's so eager. He did take the required photographerless photos also, but the feedback of 'over friendly' was read as creepy by the managers and used as the reason for bad sales. Well, those got worse when Henry defriended his work and uploaded all the photos he'd taken to his facebook page for any of his new 'friends' to take as they pleased.
Get moving, get moving, get moving, out the door. Wait! Keys by the door, wallet in pocket, phone in hand, yeah. All set. If only the brain could be left at home. Don't need that to sell insurance. "I'm leaving!" Clinks in the bathroom before the th, th, th, thud down the stairs and clasp of hands on the back of the shoulders. Suppose Henry wouldn't mind a person being linked to him for the rest of his life. One person's heaven is another person's hell.
They must have been lying there for hours, unfound, unseen, unknown to those they were awaiting. But there they lay on the carpet biding. Two this time. Two sets to different destinations. Used; but not finished with. Not abandoned yet. Chucked through a letter box, but not thrown away. A pattern emerging. Two months later, but still clearly intentional; unbeknownst to the slender brunette as she bent over, with her small, yet telling bump, to pick up the scattered post while entering the bare and unhomely hallway.
"You just walked over the post. You didn't even notice it, did you? There's an envelope with your footprint on it. Jacob!" She's still cute. For caring about stupid things like that. For saying a name in that tone of disbelief and confusion. "Jacob? Don't just look at me. At least shake your head or shrug your shoulders." Kissing her works instead. When all is lost you still have kissing. Fun, cheeky, easy, familiar kissing. Four years together does that to kissing. It becomes so familiar, as if just thinking about doing it gives you the sensation that you already have, because you know exactly how it will go; who will pull back when, who will drive it forward or get restless and slip up. How to avoid the teeth colliding or the lips catching a sly nip at the wrong moment. Angie never liked the crafty stuff. For a creative girl she's not so imaginative or inventive. "Come on, Jacob. Enough of that. I'm hungry. Don't you hate this kitchen floor? It might be worth asking the landlord." Kiss again. Much better. "Jacob. The baby's hungry."
Oh. The baby excuse again. You only have to find it cute for another, is it four months? Only four months until everything changes. No more date nights then. But is that so bad? Dates are an effort. To organise, to plan, to go through with.
"Meow," small and somehow strangely endearing. Henry's kitten wants attention.
"Jacob. There's a cat in your house." Well done. That's exactly right.
"Henry's. It was a present for his birthday yesterday." He's probably hungry too.
Everybody's hungry, but the only way that will be fixed is if more work is done. Washing, chopping, seasoning, mixing, frying, grilling, boiling. Ugh. But earning money and watching that it doesn't slip away too quickly takes extra care that the joy of take aways do not match up with. Just got to get on with it. Keep getting on with it all.
Wash the fish. And make sure Tibbet doesn't think it's his dinner. "Why a cat? I thought you boys all hated cats."
"Well, Janice thinks Henry loves cats."
"Oh. I see." You do? No one else does. He's kept it up well. "What's his name?"
"Tibbet. Because Janice says he's like a little titbit, so it's easier to say Tibbet. Henry secretly likes him. I caught them napping together on the sofa last night."
"There's a second notice bill for the water." Wash the fish, out of trouble. "Jacob, you've got to pay these things on time. You can't afford extra penalties, it's a waste of money. Oh. What's this?" Another bill presumably. That fish is most certainly clean. It's a good thing this kitten is too small to jump up anywhere. On with the vegetables. No!
"What are you doing? Don't open that!" Addressing it to Henry did not help hide anything.
"Henry won't mind. I want to see what he's looking at. I think it's great that he's interested in university again." Oh really? It's a good thing. Maybe Henry wasn't needed as a cover after all. "I meant, yeah he'll be in a crazy amount of debt by the end of it, which would drive me insane if I was him, but at least he'd be able to get a better job to pay it all off after." So it's a good thing, but a bad thing, but also a good thing? Two goods against one bad. OK. Positive. "Thank God we've only got the undergrad debt. The baby debt will make that look like nothing in a few years, but it's nice knowing there's only the normal student debt to start off with. Shit, could you imagine if we had to pay the fees now? We'd never have a hope of any money of our own. Well, we don't have that now, but I think we have a better chance of getting loans or a mortgage in the future." Mortgage? Shit. Babies bring mortgages too? "That's if we ever get a deposit for a house. You never know, my parents and your parents might help out with that. Especially if we get married." Married? Oh, god, it's time to wash the vegetables. Just wash the carrots and broccoli. "Oh, my mum's coming on Sunday. I said we'd meet her for lunch." Keep washing. And munch a carrot. Then you don't have to talk and it might help the dizziness go away.
"Oh. I didn't notice these before. Did they come with the post? They should have come in an envelope, they could have got lost otherwise. Jacob? Did you order them? Or are they Henry's?" There's more. Again? Really? "Hey. You didn't have to snatch them like that." 2008 again? Yep. 2008. June this time. June 2008. Where are the others? They were for Paignton. What about these? Torquay. Wait, and Exeter. Moving up in the world. Nicer destinations. Paignton are still up on the board. Add these to them and then maybe the puzzle will work itself out. "Oh I forgot about those other tickets. But weren't those old ones?"
"So are these. They've been used." Is someone doing this on purpose? Who used them? Why didn't they just put them in the bin?
"Oh, that's stupid. Why are you keeping them? Put them in the bin." It wasn't Angie, anyway. "Do you want any help cutting the onions? Or those sparkling carrots?" Angie's offer to help is only ever a reminder that there's a job to be done. So chop. Get back to work. Chop.
"It must be someone teaching Henry to put his rubbish in a bin. He's always getting the train to his mum's and I bet he never puts the tickets in the bin. Someone working in the train station watched him every week and decided to play a trick on him. They picked up the tickets and followed him home to put them through the letter box to teach him to put his rubbish in the right place. Next you'll get coffee cups and tissues and sandwich wrappers. Not that all that rubbish would look too strange lying about here. Maybe it's already started." Interesting theory. Makes more sense than anything Henry's come up with. His best idea was that he's been time travelling and is leaving himself hints about it.
"But why wait five years collecting tickets?" Now both are stumped. And Angie's not happy about it. She hates being proven wrong. But she's not good with riddles and mysteries and puzzles, so it's not much fun to be on her team playing games. Can't even do a crossword in the newspaper without it ending up in a fight because she's proven wrong in any guess of a tricky word.
"Where is Henry tonight anyway? I thought he'd be here. He's here all day every day with nothing to do. See, that's why it would be good for him to go back to university. There's be something for him to do each day since he doesn't have work."
"Actually, Hen found a part time job." He's never out of a job for long. It's just that interviews don't suit him.
"That's good. Now he won't be scrounging off his parents." There we go. Only took her twenty minutes to say it today. She just can't get over the fact that Henry's parents have money. Like it's a crime to have a little more than other parents.
"He doesn't ask for it. They just give him some when he's out of work." Which does happen to be quite often, but he does try to keep a job, or find one when he has to. They probably would give him more if he just asked, but he's never had to and doesn't know how. That's why he got that stupid high interest loan.
"Nice for some. Are those carrots perfectly chopped yet?" Keep chopping. Carrots, onion, broccoli, whatever. Just keep chopping. And munch a little more. That would be good. Munch. "You know, they'll probably pay for his course too. Maybe they're the ones who sent the prospectus. He won't have to worry about debt in his life." Yes. Munch. Keep munching. "Our poor child will always be surrounded by debt. Her parents. Her friends, her own life. No one has a chance anymore." This from the woman who a few minutes ago suggested that a deposit for a house wouldn't be a problem because of parental gifts. Munch. Just munch. Bite your carrot. "Hey! I'm hungry too. Leave some carrots for the dinner."
Fish and chips would be good right now. But Angie doesn't want to get fat. Or fatter than she is with the baby anyway, so not even a cheap chip shop takeaway is acceptable. No, there's no point in starting that debate again. Even though Angie likes to bring it up frequently. But it would be so good. All that batter. And salt and, well, no vinegar because Angie can't stand that either. She used to like fish and chips. She used to eat more than her share. Maybe she'll be back to sneaking chips and chocolate and ice cream again after the baby is born. She won't be as sensitive and, it's not crazy, it's hormonal, but she won't be like that just as much after.
"He's out with Janice." Still creepy as hell to think about. How he actually enjoys spending so much time with that prude is a mystery Angie can't even stab a guess at.
"Really? You know that's lasted longer than I expected. Do you think she cares that he only has a part time job? She seems like such a career woman, you think she'd wany to be with someone similar. Maybe she sent him the prospectus! That's a smart hint. I should send one to you." She laughs, but it goes against all she's just preached about the unending debt of their future. No better time to approach it, though.
"Maybe you should." Angie is just as bad at reading jokes as she is with solving a puzzle. She laughs when it's not called for.
"You want to re-live your student days with Henry? Ha ha, wouldn't that be the dream?" It would be. Without Henry. "I didn't think Henry would be interested in hospitality or travel and tourism. And in Surrey? He'd really move? He's lived in Newton Abbott all his life. Maybe Janice is hinting at a short term relationship. He's a bit late to apply anyway, courses will be starting next month."
"Actually there's a January start. For some courses. Sometimes. I think I heard that." Angie's surprised shrug shows nothing was revealed int hat slip up. It is a good thing she is bad at reading clues.
"Well if he leaves in January that's almost perfect timing for the baby. As long as she doesn't arrive too early." She? Again. Angie is determined to make it a girl by pure ignorant belief that it will be. "So should I move in here? If Henry"s thinking of leaving, it would be perfect timing anyway. We also don't have to worry about finding a new place that's close enough to your work without spending more on rent. It sounds perfect to me." Of course it does. Less of Jacob, more of Angie, that's the idea, isn't it? The more Angie can take over, the better. It does make sense, though.
"What about your place? Can you stay there until January? Is that the end of the six months?" Perfect timing. It's like she planned this all along.
"Ah. No. I have to move out at the start of November. But maybe Henry won't mind an extra little person in the house for one month." Yeah, because he doesn't complain every time Angie stays over and cleans up his organised mess, leaving him unable to find anything. "Or we can ask my mum on Sunday if she could house a homeless eight month pregnant daughter for a month. The commute would be longer, but at least it would only be for a couple of weeks before maternity leave."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. We'll sort it out." Have to. Nothing's going to change about this situation, but it's going to change everything else. Three months to live it up.
"Keep stirring. I don't want lumps in the sauce. It'd be ruined. Don't ruin it."
Wind and rain. Typical English weather. Especially in a town closer to the coast. The worst weather for moving house. Especially an eight month pregnant woman. They thought it was perfect timing. Just right to get settled before the baby. Convenient for the end of the other house contract. It couldn't be better. Except nobody thought about the limitations of the immobile mother and the inconvenienced best friend; preoccupied with his own packed possessions, unable to assist with the move in, as he is moving out.
But the wind and the rain tops it all off. Taking the blame for the soggy boxes, the sludgy footprints, the exhausted sighs and the exasperated mover. The rain, the reason for the delays and the rushes; causing the carefully planned move out and move in to collide into one mess of mobile boxes. The wind, the reason that today's tickets were almost missed. Blown away from their usual spot at the door to an overlooked space in the middle of the busy hallway; propped up and hugging the skirting board. Easy to miss.
The burst from the door that brought the fifth box in and took the third box out was the tipping point for those tickets, which were already marked with footprints from the previous tramplings, and from those, pushed to the premium blasting spot, to catch the wind gust underneath and flick them off on their way. It was also the pausing point for the over worked, stomach grumbling mover. "As soon as I come back down we're having lunch."
"Oh, good plan. I'll join you." The call for food rings home for the old chubster. Shedding the weight doesn't curb the desire.
"But we've only just started. There are more boxes to get from my place."
"Shit. How much stuff does your woman have to move? This is my last box. Just a suitcase of clothes after it and I'm done."
"Well, some of us have more treasured possessions."
"Too many." Not a good way to welcome the new housemate. "For just one person doing all the heavy work."
"I said I'd help." As if that helps much. It was basically the same way in the last move. Just more boxes. And a much nicer day.
"No, no. It's fine." It has to be. Just get up the stairs. Keep going. Keep moving. "Lunch. Get it started. Find something to eat."
"Oh. Bagels!" Angie's glare at Henry's back as he jolts out the door proves it was right to make sure they would never live together. It's amazing how the best friend of someone and the girlfriend can be so different. To Henry life is about sharing. The more the merrier in all respects: people, food, it's all there for all of us to enjoy. This is fine when others get to take from his generous offerings, but it doesn't keep them so happy when he sees it the other way too. With Angie, what's hers is hers and what's yours is, well her business too, but she'd claim the opposite.
"Didn't you go shopping yesterday like I told you to?" In gale force winds after seven hours at work and a banging headache? When there was enough food in the cupboards and fridge from the previous week's shop. No the shopping that was demanded was not completed yesterday. "It'll have to be bagels, but you better buy me more tonight." Tonight? After hours of manual labour, in the miserable wind and rain. Sure. Sounds like fun. The well deserved break that's keeping a weary body going. Where are the good old days of pizza and beer after a move?
"Got those bagels in the toaster?" Jovial and light, ready for fun and a good meal. Last moments in the house together before the biggest separation these boys have had in over fifteen years. Coming down these stairs without that light, familiar voice and cheerful face waiting in greeting is a thought best avoided.
"Yes!" Sharp and pointed, but missing its mark as the boys take their time to say their silent appreciation and goodbyes.
"Are you going to be alright moving in with a girl?" Henry the lad's lad choosing to shack up with a girlfriend seems unnatural and forced, with all his friends doing the same.
"Ah, it's not me I'm worried about, Daddy boy." Not yet. Not yet. "Yeah, it's sooner than I'd have liked, but it's gotta happen sometime, I suppose. It might as well be Janice." Tibbet, now huge from three months growth in the house, comes over to be part of the male action. It's like he knows he's needed right at that point for Henry to pick up. "I just wish our cats got along." Henry mucks Tibbet's head around in manly affection.
"You've become a real cat lover." Cheeky intentions recognised.
"Yeah, thanks to you. 'Talk about cats. She'll love it and she'll definitely hire you.' Great advice, man." Still affectionately playing with the cat.
"Well, she did love it. And she did kind of hire you."
"As her boyfriend. Not employee."
"Is there a difference?
"Oh ha ha. Ha ha ha. Yes. Money."
"Are you boys going to keep wasting time? Your bagels are getting cold." Cut short from the last normal moments together. Time to get on and do what they have to do. At least there's food involved.
Two burnt bagels in the kitchen obviously meant for the men, but accepted regardless of the snide intent. "Put whatever you want on them, and you can toast them again, I suppose, if you want them hot."
"That's ok, babe. These are fine." Clearly, as Henry has already successfully smothered his in cream cheese and taken a bite.
"So, are you excited to move in with Janice, Henry?" It seems Angie was right to worry about slowing things down at lunch, as she timidly places tomato slices along her bagel in a precise pattern.
"Sure. Not so sure about this little guy, though." They talk about dogs reflecting their owners, but Tibbet does that as a cat too. He snatches the pinch of burnt bagel that Henry offers. That cat will eat anything. He destroys the picky reputation all other cats have been careful to build. "Hopefully he'll stand his own ground in the new place with all of Janice's cats." Not if he continues to mimic his well whipped owner role model.
"You two are moving pretty quickly. It's only been, what, three months since you started dating?"
"Could say the same about you two." Angie never gets the humour related to the baby situation. She's pretty easy going usually, but she's been over sensitive in this one area and it's the hot topic for the lads to joke about currently. "Ah, well, it's been five months. Nearly. It is a big step so quick, but Janice insisted. And I couldn't say no. Besides, it's cheaper than finding a place on my own and she knows I need the money to pay off my loan."
"Couldn't you just ask your parents to pay it off?" Guys don't talk about money. Unless there's a woman there to bring it up. They just don't understand it's not the done thing.
"Well, actually, it's all sorted. Janice paid it off and I'm paying her back with my rent." A shock that doesn't make sense and makes Angie's eyes widen, so much it would be hilarious, if there wasn't something a little tricky to deal with.
"You serious, mate? She paid it off?" There's a reason why guys don't talk about money. Relationships are easy and simple, until money is brought into it. Nobody can agree on money and it's nobody else's business how you deal with your own money, good or bad. It's a real pity that this might be the last topic discussed between the guys in this house. A real pity because Henry is not impressed with the reaction.
"Yeah, but I'm paying her back." It's not usual to see Henry squirm. He knows the situation is weird and he clearly doesn't like it himself, but there's not much he can do about it.
"And living rent free. That's a pretty good deal." He doesn't need it rubbed in by the woman shoving him out of his home.
"Anyway, man, I'm sure it'll be good living with Janice. You and Janice and your beloved cats."
"Alright, alright. No need to rub it in. God, I should have said I couldn't have one because I was allergic, not that I couldn't afford it. You really set me up in that interview." And it's still hilarious that Henry's dating such a monster from work.
"What are you boys talking about?" Angie likes to be involved, it's the one thing she has in common with Henry.
"Your boy told me to mention cats in my interview with Janice, when I first met her. He told me I'd be sure to get the job because she loves them."
"Yeah, but I didn't tell you to make the whole interview a gushing conversation about your joint love of the furry animals."
"So I casually mention during my interview how I can't wait to get a job because then I can fulfil my dream of owning a cat. I thought she'd take sympathy and make my wish come true."
"And she did. And then some."
"Yeah, well I can't complain about getting a date out of it. And the little fella's pretty cool. But I have to admit I did not expect all this from an interview."
"How did you end up dating? Did she ask you out during the interview?"
"I told you about this, didn't I?"
"No. You did not. Honey." Sharp again, but bouncing off the second mark with a slight dent this time.
"Jacob told me they hired someone else and then I got a rejection email. But later that day Janice called me and just asked me out. Didn't say anything about the job, and we haven't talked about it since. I don't think she likes to mix work with pleasure."
"And you went on the date even though all you had talked about was cats? I thought you hated cats. You used to take the piss out of me for my cat cup."
"Yeah, because it's hilarious. And cats are stupid. But, now that's why I like them. Well, him anyway." Tibbet has cream cheese on his nose to prove Henry's point. Again, like owner like cat. "Besides, I thought she was fit and I could handle a little more cat talk for a date."
"You've handles a lot of cat talk for a fit girl." Many men wouldn't, certainly not the one opposite.
"That's the thing. It's like the job; she hasn't mentioned cats since. It's like they're just there in the background, not a big deal or anything. She loves the things, that's for sure, but she's not a crazy cat lady like I first thought in that interview. She's really cool. Really relaxed. Nothing's a big deal."
"Wow. That is not the person I see at work. Everything is a big deal, nothing is relaxed when she's on shift."
"You're missing out." Too right. Maybe it's the office verses home that makes the difference, but it'd be an easy bet to say it's because of Henry. He makes people relaxed. It's not just that he loves to be around people; people love to be around him too. He'd be great in hospitality and hotel management. A much better match. How could Angie not see that? Even if she was wrong about him being interested anyway.
"Right, I better get this little lad in the car and get my stuff over to Jan's."
"Jan's?" She really must be relaxed around Henry.
"You're not just going to put him in the car like that, are you?"
"No, Janice gave me a travel box. It's up in my room though, so I'll get it and come back for him. Here." Shoving a cat off on Angie is not a good idea and poor Tibbet gets a bit of a shake up as he tries to cling to the unwilling surface and ends up in a bunch on the floor, as Henry disappears out the door.
"Ready to go back to yours for the rest of the boxes?"
"Actually, why don't you go get them and I'll start unpacking in our room." Our room. Nothing is his or hers anymore. "I'm not really helping you, so I might as well do something useful..
"You opened and held doors. And it was good to have someone to do it all with. Even if you weren't lifting anything."
"You'll be fine on your own." Well, that's that, then. Fine on your own. To do everyone else's work. On your own. There's heavy Henry coming down the stairs, as if he hadn't lost all that weight. Or perhaps the cat box added it on again. Plumping down in the hallway with it, ready for his last load.
"Tibbet, boy! Ah, come on. What are you sniffing at? Oh. No way. Jake! Look what the old Tibbet has found." Expecting a mouse, but arriving to find the familiar orange of yet more, presumably old and used train tickets. "Ended up over here somehow. Surprised we didn't see them going through the door."
"We were busy. And it's not like we were expecting them."
"Maybe we should be. Did you chuck the others out?"
"Nah, I'll put them with the others. Plymouth this time."
"What's the date? Similar to the rest?" September 2008, yep, like the rest, a couple of months and years before today. "OK, I'm off while he's not moaning too much in this box. See you later mate?" Last seconds together in the house. Interrupted by the waddle.
"Bye Henry. We'll have to have you and Janice over for dinner some time. Once I get this place fixed up." That's that, then. Henry goes out again through the wind and rain. "Help me go up the stairs before you go to get the rest of my stuff." With the heavily pregnant girl to help in or out of the car and upstairs or downstairs in the other apartment, the next trip will end up a bit quicker. "Is that Henry's suitcase? Did he forget his clothes? Idiot. He'll be back later, then, I suppose."
Yes. He'll be back. He'll be back later.
Everything's new. This boy and girl living situation is still new. This year is new. With a new little person to go with it. Everything is new to her; especially the house today. Hearing the keys unlock the door for the first time, the creak swinging it open and the light thud on the ragged carpet as Daddy's foot guides the way through the threshold.
"Welcome home, Alice. Mummy's girl, eh?" The crying says it all. Crying because Daddy took her away from Mummy. Crying because Daddy doesn't have a clue about anything about you. Keep crying. Go on. Someone might as well vocalise the whole situation. "Yep. Mummy's girl. Angry at Daddy. He took you away from lovely mummy and the nice comfortable hospital and brought you here to this cold, lonely house. I'm sorry mummy couldn't come home too. She'll come home soon. I'm sure. She better. She has to. She just needs a little time to rest. She'll get better." Nothing seems to calm the little thing down. Not that it's a surprise. Wasn't the best effort. Sitting up on the kitchen table in your travel chair will be better. No more moving. You're home now. You can watch Daddy search the cupboards for something to eat. Anything at all. Packet noodles. That'll do. Enough to keep going. Not much appetite for dinner these days, anyway.
Is it the crying or just the waiting that makes the water take forever to boil? Maybe the exhaustion. It's hard to even recognise that the crying is something new and something to be dealt with anymore. It's just here. Part of a new soundscape of life. She's pretty cute, though. Even with the crying. It's true when people say you like your own kid, even if you don't like others, or the concept of kids in general.
Pick up the saucepan, put it on the stove. Open up the packet and drop the noodles all out cold. Clank and clash to find a spoon to stir them all around. Finally grab the kettle and pour out the water with a fizzle sound. A little soundtrack to cooking dinner. A soundtrack that Alice seems to like. To be interested in; waiting for the next part. Okay. If you like the claps and clangs, that's what you'll get. Ready, Alice?
Ting, ting, ting the spoon rings against the pot, dripping the water away. Keep making noises. Clap the counters, bang the cupboards, bash the bin, get lost in the silliness, in the fun, in the noise and the happy baby sounds joining it. Little hums of content and curiosity. And then. Is that a giggle?
No. Not from Alice, anyway. Something outside, maybe. Probably complaints to keep it down. Who cares, though? It's better than the cries. There's a happy baby in the kitchen now. After a careful, quiet hospital where Angie wouldn't allow any noise, we've finally cracked it. Cracked, clanged and crashed it. This baby doesn't hate noise. Maybe she needs it. What music would she like? Drums. Something with drums. Daddy can't keep making them on his own while he eats, so we'll rely on some Radiohead to do the trick. Everybody like Radiohead, Alice will too. She's a cool baby. Just like her Daddy.
"You like it? Eh? Daddy's little girl. We don't meed mummy. Well, that's not true, but we'll get by for now. It's not so bad alone with Daddy, after all." Add in the slurp of the noodles for a bit of that live effect and Alice has no cares in the world. Until her dinner time. And then it will be all up to Daddy to get the milk formula right. And then changing time, to put the troublesome nappy on in precisely the right way so it doesn't fall off or create a leak. Trial and error is not something we want for a delicate little creature like you. But you might be getting it. Just until Mummy gets better and can take over like a pro. For now it's Daddy the amateur. Good luck, kid. Slurp on. Keep slurping the noodles. For Alice.
Angie said to clean up the kitchen. She says it after every meal, but it shouldn't have waited this time. Now there's a messy, dirty kitchen and no one with enough strength to clean it. Messy sink, messy counter, messy table. Even a messy pin board. Pins everywhere, with bills, letters, menus to takeaways they'll never enjoy again; and those train tickets all over the place.
Fucking train tickets. If only they were for now, not years ago. Five years ago these people weren't even living in this house. Actually, that's not true. It's been over five years since the first move into this house. Different groups of housemates, but one that's seen them all. Five years ago he was a different person. Early twenties, not mid. Fresh out of uni still. Slacking off with minimum wage jobs. No nine to five. Just whatever could be got. No baby. No live-in girlfriend. Shit.
Shit. Five years. It's 2014 today. Five years ago. It's been five years. She kept the tickets. She remembered. 2008 wasn't the clue. It's 2009. The last one's coming. But they've all been a couple of months off. In June there were ones from April. August they were from June, and in November it was September. Was there a reason for that or did she just pick random times and random tickets? No the tickets are sequential. Aren't they? Paignton, Torquey, Exeter, Plymouth. Yeah. That's the right order. Shit. She's back. And she remembered. So where was it after Plymouth? Penzance. Of course. She's about to give it away anyway. When was Penzance? Not for a while. Her Christmas break. Penzance was freezing. That's why they suggested spring. Go back to Penzance in spring to see it in warmer weather. Take her to Penzance instead of watching the Pirates of Penzance. That was a good deal. Even if it was freezing.
So, two months until the next tickets. Thank god. Two months to forget about it. No need to wonder if she's really remembered everything. But if she's sending the tickets, she must. She promised a hint. She's fucking doing that.
Shit. Alice. There's no question now. Maybe before. Nine months ago, maybe. Maybe then it would have been something to consider. But now it's different. Now there's Alice. Not just Angie. There's Alice. No, there's no question now. Gotta keep going, just the way it is.
Wish sleep was just as easy for everyone, as it is for you Alice. But it's not when you realise something shocking. When you realise you've made your own future and the choice you gave yourself years ago is no longer relevant. Even if you wanted it to be. It's really been five years? Of course it has.
What's she been up to in that time? Same house? No. She'd have moved after she finished university anyway. Where to? Somewhere else in the west? Would she even have stayed in England? That was the whole point anyway. Five years to live it up and then see what life had brought. Well she must be back now. If she's putting these tickets through the door. Back in Newton Abbott. Living at home? She said she'd never live with her parents again. But why come back? Why bother with the tickets? Why remember? Why think about it now?
Babies should sleep in cots, not in car seats. There's business at hand. There's plenty to be done here, now. No point in thinking about the past or something that's not even going to happen. Babies should sleep in cots. But how do you move a sleeping baby?
Scrape, click, flutter and nothing. Was that the post? At night? No way. Drop the baby. Don't drop. Just quickly, gently put it back in place. Run to the door and yes. There it is. Orange and punched. And what does it say? January 2009. She's caught up! Wait. Where is she? Latch and slide the door, out to the freezing dark. Fuck. Where'd she go? Left? Right? Baby. Can't leave the baby. Just lean out; one step out. Nothing. Not a glimpse of swishing hair or a shadow of the evidence of her being here or even running away. Nothing. How did she do it? Where did she go? Could find out in the spring. If you want. Four months from now. It doesn't mean abandoning Alice. Or even Angie. It's just finishing what was started a long time ago. Angie would get it. No. No she wouldn't. Definitely not this. She'd never accept this. But, then girls are strange and there are still tickets coming through the door. Implying she's forgotten, or forgiven, or is willing to accept.
Baby. The baby needs moved now. Oh. No. Now she's awake. Was it the blast of cold air from the door? Was it the bang of it closing again? Anyway, she must be hungry by now. Definitely hungry, as the rhythm of clashes and clangs aren't keeping her quiet anymore. Mixing to the exact recipe and heating precisely as directed by the nurses, let's hope it does the trick, doesn't burn, and doesn't poison. There's so much chance and risk with a baby. How do people do it? It's not a mystery why. Once the little thing comes along there's something about it that makes you want to do anything for it. Once it's here. But planning to do it all is not just as fathomable. Five years ago, this is not the future imagined by those young ones in love with freedom, adventure, life; and each other. Five years ago they imagined that would never change. That's why they planned to go back to Penzance in the spring. To be pirates in better weather. But that was five years ago. Five years is a long time. Longer than they imagined. But now it feels like yesterday. It's easy to jump back there in your mind. To see it all, feel it all. Smell it all. The coconut lip balm, the salt and vinegar breath, the floral perfume down the neck. Inviting. Exciting. Familiar. Like the tickets hold that lingering scent to tempt and taunt. Calling back to those moments. A second chance to go, play, rest.
But that brings all the failings, all the inadequacies, all the reasons why it is five years later and in no way the same, or possible to go back. This hungry baby needs to be fed and her sick mother needs to be cared for. With money earned and attention offered, and affection. Not forced, but willingly given. Keep giving it. Like always. When it's accepted; and just keep giving it when it's not. It's funny how some people aren't as affectionate as others. Aren't as touchy feely. It's funny how you get used to it and even begin to enjoy it. To rely on it, and become one of those doting, petting, people. It's easy to get used to. To adapt to. Not so easy to strip it away again and grow accustomed to the rejection and the chill of the ones who find it awkward and irritating. But people are different.
And different people bring out different things in others. It's comfortable to go with the easy, unexpecting life. Not to expect much of yourself or be expected to do more. Just a comfortable life with no surprises or anticipations. Oh, well that's not true, is it, Alice! Some surprises happen no matter what you do. No matter how safe you think you are. But they don't always turn out so bad. "Are you happy now, with your milk? And your chubby cheeks sucking away. You don't mind me touching you, do you?"
In fact, she likes it. She leans in to it. She begs for it. She holds on to it, like the big man's finger she's grasped gently with her tiny tiny fingers. She needs the affection. And she'll get it. Always. No. A comfortable, undemanding, unexpecting life is fine. Just fine. With the right people. The right little person.
"Come on. She's asleep now. And she might be asleep for the next four hours." Not a chance of that. Alice is a good baby, but the sun is out, the neighbours are getting ready for work and kids will be walking past on their way to school. No way that curious baby will stay asleep for another hour, let alone four. "Just imagine what we could get done in that time." When a baby sleeps, shoudn't the parents, too? Especially when one of them has an afternoon shift to look forward to? "We'll start in the kitchen. Do it over breakfast. We'll just clean some things up and make a plan and a list of what to do and what to get to make it brighter, more inviting. More homely. And if we get that list done, we can move on to the hallway."
"Let's just get breakfast, first." That wasn't exactly and agreement, so no skipping called for, but at least breakfast is getting closer. What's better? Food or sleep? It's hard to tell at this point. As soon as it's time for one, you want the other and nothing satisfies. It's easy for Alice. She gets the right one just when she wants it. Although, sometimes even she seems confused about which she prefers.
"Ideally, I'd love to get a different table, but maybe we can just paint it. Or as a
last resort, find a table cloth that is actually nice and doesn't make the place look too dowdy." Just focus on the toast, please, how can you do or think about anything else? "We could paint the cupboards too." We? Who exactly? "They're just so dirty after all these years of bachelor living. The landlord really should do a good clean and spruce up of the whole place, but I suppose you boys were expected to keep it decent and clean as each person left." Yeah, well nothing official was ever stated. Speaking of the landlord, shouldn't he be doing any work, or at least paying for it?
"Actually, I don't know if we can paint the cupboards. The landlord might not let us. I'm sure there's something in the contract about structural changes." That'll stop any of this fixing up talk.
"Oh, no I asked him when I was signing the contract. As long as we don't knock a wall down he basically doesn't care. We just can't afford much more than paint." Is paint even affordable? The butter going on this toast barely is. "Anyway we'll wash the walls. Hopefully they don't need paint, I don't want too many fumes in here with Alice's bottles. And that notice board can come down right away. It's such a ghastly sight. Is there anything in any way useful on it? Concert tickets?" Gig tickets. "From two years ago. They can go in the bin." Tearing down years of memories and life. "A gas bill. From three years ago. With doodles all over it." Not the comic book cafe. That was a great idea, and all planed out in drawings. Diagrams. Should have done something about it. No comics, though, and no funds to rent a cafe. "A blurred picture. I don't even know what it's of." Henry and that ugly girl he thought looked like Tara Reid. That was the only proof we had that he was wrong, but his proof that maybe he wasn't. "And these old train tickets. They're not even yours, but you pin them up like treasured memories."
"No. Keep them." Nobody expected that one. Why keep them?
"Why? They're rubbish." But they're not. Not rubbish at all. Why keep them? Why hold on? Because it's not finished yet. There are more to come. "There hasn't even been a new one in months."
"Actually one came this month." Shocked, surprised and hurt. Like some secret has been kept from her. Can't have that. "You were in the hospital, so I added it to the rest. I forgot about it as soon as it happened." Angie's feet edging closer in threat to the doom of the bin. Testing. The excuse. The idea. The relationship.
"Well, they're still rubbish and should have been thrown out as they came through the door. It's like everything else that comes into this house. You boys don't know what or when to let go. You just hoard all this crap and it takes over everything. Well it's not the lad's house anymore. It's our house. With Alice. So we're cleaning everything out. Including -" but a hand reaches out to snatch the tickets from her as she leads them to their doom. "What is the big deal about these tickets? They're just used, useless tickets to stupid places. There's nothing special about them. Is there?" Make her believe that is exactly the case. "Is there something you're not telling me?" No, no. Calm and steady, proves there's nothing suspicious. "Do you know who sent them?" Pah, shrug of the shoulders shows no clue. "Why do you want to keep them?"
"They're not mine to throw away. There's something disrespectful about putting them in the rubbish. Some people used these tickets. They went places together, did things, saw things. The mystery is pretty cool. Don't you think?" Moments to consider. Moments to take it in, ponder and disagree.
"No. They're just used rail tickets." No respect, just dropped in on top of the old bills and photos. But when she turns and takes the board off the wall she misses the sly grab to rescue just those last memories. "There. Better already." But why rescue them? Why are they needed? Why are they more valuable than the years of housemate memories already discarded with rotting apple cores? "Oh, but look at the colour!" Yes, there's something about mystery. "It's like a different shade." And something about the journeys made. "Look at it." The memories they made and the people they were. "Completely different."
"I'll have to paint over the whole thing, then, I suppose." But painting is not on Angie's mind yet. She wants to clean. The toast is half eaten and getting cold, but a rag is her only priority as she storms over to the sink, finds one, adds soap and water to it and marches straight back to the now bare wall, to rub at the grime. She's on a mission. And she's persistent. That's Angie when there's something she wants. Just like this relationship. She had her eyes on it and she scrubbed everything else away until she could get it the way she wanted.
"It's working. It's coming off. Yes! Right, get a cloth and start on the other side." And just like everything else, she makes all the other people work just as hard to do what she wants.
"Let's finish breakfast first." Priorities!
"Shove it in your mouth and eat while you work."
"Angie, there's no rush. That wall will get clean by the end of the day. OK? I promise I'll help you with it." As much as possible before work.
"But we need to do all four walls today." The whole kitchen? In one morning? Before work and in between tending to the baby?
"Angie, that's not going to happen. One wall, yes, we can to that, and maybe we can start a second wall, but the rest will have to wait. There's no rush." Oh, hold on, there's a rush. And it's not going to be a particularly pleasant one. "Why does it have to be today?"
"My parents are coming over tomorrow." There it is. As feared. "They haven't seen the place yet and they've been nagging me about that for ages. I just want it to look nice when they come." So that they don't have another reason to judge? They'll do it anyway. "And we have to clear out all the rubbish so they can see if it's big enough." So now the grandparents have to judge if the home is big enough for a baby? Just another reason to complain about the set up. "They want us to host the christening. Well, the gathering afterward, so that people can chat and have some food."
"Oh, no. I've already said no to the christening. I'm not having my child forced into some religion she doesn't have a choice in, when her parents don't even follow it."
"If it wasn't for my faith, we wouldn't have a child in the first place." Yes, exactly. And now you expect to reward that?
"You have faith? What in, exactly?" The only evidence of this faith is Alice, but if there was more evidence of this faith that wouldn't have been possible in the first place. Don't Christians believe in abstinence before marriage? There were no complaints or professions of faith then. People can't just pick and choose what they follow when they say they believe in something. At least the rest of us admit that we just do what we like. And we don't have to feel guilty about it because some priest tells us to.
"My religion. Whatever." Whatever? Isn't there a difference? If you're separating them out like this then there must be. You have a religion, but no faith? Isn't that the point of a religion that it gives you faith in something more? Why follow all the rules otherwise? So, if you have a religion, but no faith, you're following the rules, but you don't have any hope in a reward. Why follow the rules, then? It seems like so much effort. Just to make you feel like a better person? Well, you're no better than me. We all make the same mistakes, and we all break the 'christian' rules. They're impossible to keep all the time. So what makes a Christian better? Because they only break the smaller rules? Who judges what rules are worse to break than others? I don't remember anyone giving me a list of which ones you have to keep and which ones you should try to keep, but don't worry if you don't manage to. Or is it just that the punishment isn't as bad for some as it is for others? What is the punishment? I've only heard one reward and that's heaven. So what's the grading system? How many points do you need to pass? Why do some Christians seem to be so care free about it all, but others just seem to do it to make themselves feel better, even though they’re still panicking. I have no religion and I feel just fine about myself. Well, I guess, I'll do. I'm no worse or better than the next person. Not even those Christians.
"I'm not going to bring my kid up to believe something I don't, just to make me look good or please your parents, and I'm certainly not going to pretend to promise that I will, when I have no intention to."
"Why can't you just support me? And my family? I'm sure yours will be happier knowing Alice has a place in heaven because of this."
"What? That doesn't make any sense!" If you were baptised, that means you've got a place too? So it doesn't matter what you do. Why bother sticking to all these rules? Well, some of them.
"Look, I believe it. Can you just accept that and respect it? I respect that you don't believe it and I don't force you to."
"Actually, Angie you are. By making my daughter do this and making me support it and go along with it, you're forcing me to believe it, or at least pretend that I do. You don't respect the fact that I don't believe a little bit of water is going to send my daughter to heaven instead of hell." A drop through the letter box suddenly makes this argument seem ridiculous. It's not. It's important. But there might be something else.
Tickets? No. It's the post. It was heavy. But every time, there's a hope that it's tickets. "Don't walk away. We need to sort this out."
Walking to that door is the only thing that can be done. Something's waiting there. Waiting for me. But it can't be tickets. The drop was too solid. And no. Just bills. And maybe a magazine or catalogue. That door holds no hope right now. It's back to reality again. "Bills."
"I'll deal with them later. Oh. This isn't a bill. It's another prospectus for surrey. Jacob. It's addressed to you." Another prospectus? But only one was ordered. In Henry's name. And then it was tossed aside. It wasn't a good idea. According to Angie. But it's not Angie who ordered this one.
She remembered. She really remembered everything. Was it her? But how did she know about Surrey? If she's putting things through the letterbox, maybe she's monitoring what goes through it too. No. She wouldn't know. The tickets never come at the same exact time as the post. It really would be stalking if she watched the house that closely. That's not what this is. What is it then? What does she want? We can't go back to five years ago. But if that was possible what would we change? What could be changed now? "It's just a mistake." Throw it out. Like the tickets. You can fish it out again later.
"Can we finish this now? I'll tell my parents we can't have people round after. They can book a hall or something. That's fine. But my daughter is going to be christened. OK?"
"OK. But I'm not going." Not to church. Not to Surrey. Not to Penzance. Not anywhere.
An empty house. That's a rare thing these days. But now Alice is over a month old she gets to go out on visits to grandparents and cafes and, church. Suddenly mummy is a regular church goer. Just to show Daddy how important it is. Daddy just enjoys the quiet house while he gets it for a few hours. Lying-in like the good old days. But not today. Normal work day, with a quick lad's dash home for lunch and planning.
The house is empty no longer, as the lads bash through the door, a slight panic in every movement. "Jake-gob, you're saving my life, here. Oh, post." Not post. Not now. There's no time. "Ooh, someone's got a valentine's card. And she posted it. That's effort. And a waste. Why didn't she just hand it to you this morning? Oh. I left the bag in the car. Hold on."
Good. Time to think. Time to open this thing quick and get rid of it before Henry notices anything suspicious. As if he would; but just in case. Angie did just hand a card at breakfast this morning. This is not from Angie. It's not from any girl. It's to a girl. She even kept this, all these years. The stupid drawing of a pirate ship on blue card. There's extra thought in a handmade card. Extra care. Extra attention. Extra love. Even if it is just a stupid scribble on cheap card bought in haste the day before. But she loved it. Far better than any shop bought one. This was special. This was them.
This is not the time. Shoved in the top drawer underneath the car magazines with the rest of those thoughts, just as the strangely silent Henry meanders in. "What's up with you? Look like you've seen a ghost."
"No. Nothing. I didn't." Seems like he actually did. "So, I know we said not too cheesy, but then I thought, Angie's just had a kid. Now's the time for mushy, cuddly stuff. And if she doesn't like it, you can give it to Alice. So here's what I got." Tipping the two carrier bags out onto the table, to reveal a bunch of various cuddly toys. Each with some kind of heart or 'love' message. Definitely more suited to Alice. Although Angie would probably be very pleased to receive one. Suppose it's the done thing. It's expected. "So you take a few and I'll take a few. Just, let me give that one to Janice. I saw her looking at it the other day."
"She is a cat lady." And that's fine, because this cat has got creepy eyes that follow you about.
"Not usually. Has to be the right one. Anyway. What have we planned for dinner? This better be good." Good is anything edible, right Henry?
"Grilled salmon, new potatoes and vegetables with a lemon vinaigrette." It is actually tasty, Henry. "Come on. Girls love fish. Something about omegas they have to have. And salmon is the least fishy tasting fish. Plus this will be easy, and quick to cook. Just put it all in to grill. Except the potatoes, boil them."
"Ah, Jake. Couldn't we have steak instead?" Dropping the bag of ingredients in front of him kills that wish. "At least tell me there's a desert."
"Chocolate cake and cream. See, with the fish, they won't be complaining about too many calories to spoil pudding."
"There's method in the madness." Isn't there always? You gotta learn how to play the women. And then watch it fail, because they always make sure of that. "I got the invite to Alice's christening." So, she did it. "You still not going?" Nope. "She's pushing it with the date in March, isn't she? End of March? Alice will be about three months by then, won't she? Is that normal?"
"It's something about one of Angie's aunts. Can't make it 'til then. And apparently you can't do it without the whole family."
"What about your side? Angie said she invited them." The pressure is not just from Angie.
"Yeah, I don't know. When did you talk to Angie?"
"She came round with the invitation last Sunday. Think she wanted me to make you go, but I just left her with Janice and played on the Xbox." Nicely avoided. "She asked me about a university prospectus. Said it was the second one to come for me, but I'd written the wrong name this time. You know what she was talking about?"
Do it. Just do it. Tell him. "Yeah man. A while back we got a prospectus from Surrey for their hospitality, travel and tourism courses."
"Seriously? Well, I didn't order it. And another one came recently?"
"The other week, yeah. To be honest, I ordered the first one, just to see what the courses were like."
"Hospitality? Like hotels? You want to work in a hotel? Why don't you just get a receptionist job? Or a cleaning job and work your way up to receptionist?"
"Because I want to run one. Or go into management. But I don't have the qualifications."
"You have a degree. Better one than me."
"Yeah, but it's in politics. At least if it was business I'd have something useful. Anyway, Angie made it clear that it's a stupid idea."
"When did you think of this? Hotel management. You've always had sales jobs since uni."
"Actually Tanya suggested it once." That got a reaction. Has Henry stopped breathing? It's like he's just seen that ghost again. "It kinda stuck. I like the idea. Always have." Henry starts to recover by taking some static breaths and working with his mouth to get the saliva flowing again.
"I did not expect to hear that name. You banned it from this house. It was a forbidden name to everyone who knew you. They just knew not to say it. I thought maybe you'd forgotten her."
"Nah, man." You don't forget. Not even when you think you have.
"Well, since you've said it. I wasn't going to mention it, but I could have sworn I just saw her walking down the street when I went back for the bags." What? But there weren't any tickets. And that card was definitely posted, not hand delivered. Why would she be around here? Did she have something else to post? Maybe she saw people at the door and got spooked. "She was just casually walking down the street, I couldn't believe it. She didn't look my way. I don't think she saw me. It might not have been her. Why would she walk down this street?" Gotta tell him now. He's the only person you can.
"Actually, I think she's been down here quite a bit."
"You've seen her? Is this why you're suddenly looking at uni courses? Have you met up with her? Are you two-" No, no, no. Time to pull out the drawer. Uncover the evidence. "The train tickets? You still have those? Thought they were used."
"Yeah. On dates I went on with Tanya." Now he gets it. Henry loves a puzzle. "We used to just pick a place on the train map and head out. It was fun to get out of town and just have time alone, without bumping into anyone we know. Around Christmas time we went to Penzance and it was so cold we agreed to go again in the spring. Then she told me her plan to travel after graduation. I said I'd wait for her to come back, but I couldn't go with her. Anyway, we fought about that for the next few weeks before she finally went back to uni. But that night, we agreed, no matter what, that in five years, in spring, we'd meet again in Penzance."
"It's five years since you guys broke up?"
"Wait. You didn't break up at Christmas. It was ages after that."
"Yeah. When I called her to break it off a few months later she said 'I'll see you in five years, matey.' And now she's reminding me with these tickets and the prospectus-"
"Wait. I thought you ordered it?" But the second prospectus sits on the table with the train tickets. "The second one?"
"And today a valentines card. One I made for her. Five years ago. The tickets stopped a couple of weeks ago, just before the prospectus came. She sent them to match with the dates after Christmas." Reliving each moment, each argument, each kiss.
"Newquay? You went to Newquay in January? Oh that's disgusting. Beaches shouldn't exist in winter." Actually it was nice. Refreshing. The waves were amazing to watch. Like they were angry too. "Par? What's in Par? Barnstaple? St Ives? Jeez, you went everywhere on the train line within like two weeks. Why didn't you just agree to travel with her?"
No idea now. "I had a job here. And bills and debt. I had no money to travel. Especially for as long as she wanted." No idea whatsoever.
"Do you regret it?" Yes!
"Man, I chose to stay. I met Angie. We've been together for basically five years now."
"But you only got with her as a rebound thing. Well, kind of a rebound. Did you stay with her because you felt guilty about cheating?" This is what everyone has always wanted to ask, isn't it? But nobody has. Not even the people involved. "Do you think Tanya knows you're still together?" If she has been watching, then she knows. If she's just playing a joke: then maybe. If she's serious about all of this: then who knows. "So, when's the last ticket? The five year one?"
"Fist of April, two thousand and fourteen. 1.4.2014. Fourteen, fourteen. That's what she said down the phone. 'I'll see you in five years, matey. 2014. First of April 2014. Ha, 14, 14. I like that.' Then she hung up."
"April fool’s day? You're kidding?" Everyone said it was a bad idea to tell her that day, but you don't think of those things when you're in the situation and you just have to get it over with. Get rid of the guilt. "Oh, yeah. I remember I didn't believe you. I thought you were making a really bad joke."
"So did Tanya. At the start." But then she knew it was true. And part of her must have been relieved. She didn't have to fight or convince anymore. She got what she wanted; freedom to travel the world. No one to worry about back home.
"Are you going to go?" How can you ask that? From the start, there has been no question. Life is here. With Alice. And Angie. That's how it is. There is no choice, because that is what was chosen.
"It has to be a joke, Henry. There's no way she'd really want to meet after what I did to her." Ultimate betrayal. You can't forgive that.
"You know, sometimes people forgive anything. They just love."
"What? Nah, you have to do the right things to deserve it. That's how it feels. You do stuff for someone and they love you because of it. Why else bother to be nice?"
"What did Angie do to deserve your love?"
"Uh, Alice. That was kind of a big deal."
"Before that. You can't just love someone because she had your kid."
"Well, I guess she didn't do anything not to deserve it. Put up with me."
"What about Angie loving you? Why did you deserve that?"
"I chose her instead of Tanya!"
"Whoa, dude. Is this why you're threatening not to go to the christening? Are you testing Angie? Or do you want her not to love you anymore?"
"No, no. It's not that." It's not. It's not. "But I wish love was like you said. That'd be worth all the effort. I guess it wouldn't feel like such effort and pressure."
"I think it can be. It just means you're not so obsessed about what you do and what the other person does against you all the time. If you can look beyond yourself and see a better reason to love, than getting something out of it. I'd hate it if Janice only loved me if I got her this cat toy. There has to be more to it than that."
Henry has some nice ideas sometimes.
Perfect Sunday morning. Girlfriend and baby at mass, nothing to do at home and no visitors expected. Time to lounge about the house wearing nothing but underwear; just in case there's a knock at the door or a curious passer-by. Playing the Xbox, surfing the net, reading books, yes the boredom came to that. It's just nice to be inside with no worries while the wind and rain blow people about outside.
But then, those moments can't last forever. Not a knock, but the sound of the lock and blow of the intruding wind, as it urges the restless baby and her all too chatty mother back into their home. "Oh my god, I thought I'd never get this pram back to the house. That wind is crazy. I can't wait for spring. What are you wearing? You should be dressed in case someone comes to the door?" Who exactly? Everyone else is asleep on a Sunday morning. Or, well, maybe at church. "Don't just stand there; help me get this pram inside." Now, with the wind getting in, there is a reason for clothes. But also a reason to get this done quickly and get the door shut as soon as possible.
"Did you start lunch?" Oh. The same question each week, but still unanticipated and receiving the same reply. "Get dressed and help me with it then." No time with the little one, just straight to work. But, then she is asleep, so it's best not to pick her up quite yet. "Oh, you'll never guess who I just ran into walking through the park."
"You went through the park in this weather?"
"It's not raining now." But it was. And there are the muddy wheels to prove it. Just told to clean it yesterday and that order will be repeated today. "Anyway, you'll never guess who I saw in the park." Well, do you expect a guess or not? If it's impossible, what are you waiting for? "Tanya." And now you expect a response. But what reaction do you want? Delight? Dread? Surprise? Nonchalance? "Well? Are you surprised?"
Puzzled. Concerned. Baffled at how entertained Angie seems to feel about the situation. "Ah, yeah." But not all that surprised. It was becoming clear that Tanya was closer than previously thought, with the tickets, the prospectus, the card, and Henry's sighting. Angie knew nothing of all that, though, so surprise is right.
"Don't you want to know what she said?" No! Not at all.
"You talked to her?" What could she have said? Why would Tanya talk to Angie? OK, they did know each other before, but not that well. It was only through friends, meeting and casually chatting at parties.
"Well, I wasn't sure what to do at first. I didn't want to rub it all in, but she said hello and I couldn't ignore her, then. She met Alice. And guessed she was yours. She actually seemed really cool about everything. Really together. And she said she was happy for us." Happy for us? How could she be happy for us? Oh god, it's cold out in the hallway. But no way to grab any clothes. Just going to keep shivering. Half naked and talking about past relationships. And shivering.
"It was nice to talk to her, actually. It gave a bit of closure on the whole issue." Closure? What is closure? Why are people so obsessed with having 'closure'? We were fine before, we didn't need any closure. Angie seemed content enough before, she was happy with everything. Happy to ignore it, just like everyone else. Happy to not mention that name for fear of: who knows what. Why was everyone so scared to say that name? Why is it still hard?
People don't get closure. They just move on. What if Angie had never seen Tanya again? Would she suffer without that 'closure'? And what if it had been different when they met? If Tanya hadn't seemed so fine about everything, would Angie have her precious 'closure' then? No. People don't need closure.
"You know I've always felt a little guilty about how it happened and knew it must have hurt her. But I guess even Tanya knows you can't stand in the way of love, however it happens." Love, yeah. How does it happen? Is it just a connection people have, that they can't explain and somehow never goes away? Or is it something you get through time with that person? Just spend enough time with someone and you'll love them.
"So it's good I bumped into her. I'm glad. Oh, and you'll never guess what." Didn't the last time; this time will be no different. "I found out that she lives down the road. Only about ten or so houses down. How crazy is that?" She lives on this street? Tanya is on the same street? "She's been right down the road for over a year now. Can you believe it?" This time surprise is the reaction. Shock. That’s the word. Over a year? What has she been doing all this time? Why pick this street, knowing all that history? "She was surprised to hear we're in the same house you rented back when you knew her. I can't believe none of us have run into her before. It's funny isn't it?" Funny, yes; if you mean suspicious, odd, bizarre. How can a person torture herself so cruelly? To live on the same street she spent so much time on and has so many tainted memories from. Unless she is over it. Like Henry said. Maybe she did just forgive it and she isn't hurt by it, has even forgotten it. "If it was me I wouldn't even come back. Not to this part of town, anyway. I know I wouldn't live on the same street as my ex. Even if I thought he didn't live there anymore. But that's me." Tanya's different. She always has been. "So what'll we have for lunch? Bacon sandwiches? At least that's easy and quick."
Finally, time to part and time to get dressed. Still shivering all the way to the drawers. Still shivering when fully clothed and knowing the house is warm enough. "Jacob!" Shocked might be more accurate than surprised. "Do you want sauce on yours?" Can't think of eating. A decision must be made. What to do? But there's never been a choice. Why does it feel like there is one now? It feels more real. Feels more vital to life and possibilities. But no. There's no choice. You chose a life and you stick with it. But there never really was a choice. It was like Angie chose that night. It happened in frustration and anger and panic. Panic over what? Over a choice, again. Choose to stay and loose the woman you love, or choose to go and risk all you've built up so far. And now, the same choice. But last time it was others that made it. Never been one to stand up and make a decision. Even when the right one was known. Still avoided it. Lazy? Easy going? Or deep down terrified. Never admit to any of them.
But now Alice is awake, and the bacon will be getting cold. And there is no decision to make. Just get over the shivers and get down the stairs. "Jacob! Your food is getting cold. And the baby's awake, I need your help." Yes, yes. On the way. Back to reality. To normality. It's funny how you can forget something so well, until it's shoved in your face again. But why is it so hard to forget it again? You forgot it once, because you had to, it was the only way. So why not now? It can be done. It will be done. How was it done the last time? Work. Friends. New girlfriend. Partying. Lots of partying. Anything that just didn't allow for time alone to think. So why, now, when it's a busy time, with lunch, settling a baby and trying to listen to the endless stream of chat from the girlfriend; why now is it hard to stop thinking about the forgotten things? They should be forgotten. They want to be forgotten.
They will be forgotten. So concentrate on the chatter. "...but mum has already promised to make a cake, so I had to tell Sarah we don't need one, but she insisted that this would be her gift to Alice. Alice can't even eat the cake, so it seems senseless to me to have two christening cakes when we could..." Not sure that's totally worth it. Christening and cakes aren't exactly exciting topics. Nor are they topics desired for discussion or distraction. But then again, starting a fight about the christening again could help to distract from other thoughts. Not likely. Best to keep the peace. "...would you?" Oh, now she's looking for a response. Nod and smile. As best you can. "That's if I'm nice to you and bother to bring any home. I won't eat it; I'm still trying to get the baby weight off, so it'd just be for you. But I don't know if you deserve it when you still refuse to go to your own daughter's christening. Hmm?"
This is it. Perfect opportunity for a fight. Something to explain the tension and confusion. Something to be stressed about that will make complete sense to anyone around. Something to hide these other thoughts away. Say something to get her angry. Something to really hurt. Go on. Something against her precious religion that seems to be deciding some things for her instead of letting her choose for herself like anyone else. The clutch she hides in when it suits her and laughs at when it doesn't. Just to look good and make her feel better about herself. At least she didn't kill her baby. But she still had sex before getting married. She's still living with a man who isn't her husband. She doesn't seem one tiny bit concerned about that. Go on. Start the ultimate argument. Hit her where it hurts. "Maybe I don't."
Yep, run away. And take the dirty plates with you. Do the opposite of what you really want. Let it all just keep plodding along. Don't stir it up. That's what makes you feel better. To hide away and not face up to what you think. Or want. Go with what others think. Follow the norm and just get by. Forget everything else. Yes. This is how to do it. Don't face up to anything. Put it all away again. Hide it in that secret place and go with everyone else. It works for them, so it'll work for you.
"No. I don't think you deserve any cake. So I'll just give it away at the church. They're supportive. They deserve it." Yep, don't fight back. Let her make herself feel better by blasting you. At least someone's content, then. And then the rest will follow. With time. She can't force anything on Alice. Alice will make her own choices. I'll make sure of that.
"But you can always change your mind, if you want the cake." No. If there's one thing to stand up to, it's this. This is my closure.
It's getting late. Too late. Has she changed her mind? Nothing all month. No contact. No tickets, no cards, no meetings even. Nothing. So it was all a joke. Why? What for? And now, so close to the end, did she just give up? Does she feel guilty because of Angie? Because of Alice? That could be it. Everything's different when a child is involved. But why does that drawer haunt? Why does the image of those old tickets lying there pop into mind so frequently? What happened to forgetting? After April it'll all be over. Just get through until then. Why not throw out the tickets and card and prospectus now? Why not? Wouldn't it stop the staring at that drawer? Go on. That's it. Stand up, move forward.
"Oh, do you really have to wear those jeans?" No, no, back up. Pretend to make tea. Or start the dinner. Anything. Just get away from that drawer. "If you won't throw them out, at least don't wear them when we're having people over." That's right. That's why dinner has to be prepared. Why you're in the kitchen in the first place. It wasn't to check if any post was left on the table. You got distracted from the nagging she started as soon as you entered the house. The nagging that will continue all night, as usual, until Janice and Henry arrive. Let's face it, it'll continue even then, just more politely.
"I'll change after I cook. Didn't want to ruin any other clothes." It used to be really hard to come up with replies. But having a woman watch and question your every move makes you more aware of it yourself and find excuses more readily. It's all about learning to manage the situation. Find something that will keep her happy, even if it's not the exact truth. Who knows why these jeans. No one was thinking while that happened. It's just what happened. Why do girls have to consider everything over and worry about the consequences and reasons for every single, tiny, inconsequential action? No point in worrying about that, either. Just manage the situation as it is and try to keep all parties happy. As happy as possible. Even if it never seems all that happy. At least Angie seems satisfied with this answer. No comments or sniffs as a reply.
Why do people want to live with each other? It's hard enough with friends, but the last arrangement seemed to work out fine. Boys and girls should not live with each other. They're just too different. And the girls take over. The boy disappears. Nothing is his anymore. This house looks nothing like the good old days. Changed surroundings without even moving. More work, though. Cleaning and painting and chucking out every last piece of the old home to create whatever this is today. At least Angie seems pleased with it. For now. God knows she'll find something else to change next week. Or the week after, anyway. Once the christening is done with. All attention is on that right now. No space to think of anything else.
"You're chopping them too big." Of course. "And why have you put the carrots on to boil so soon? The pie isn't even ready to go in the oven." And what else? "Oh, Jacob! You didn't take the meat out of the freezer this morning like I told you to!" There it is. Another fault. One that Angie could have fixed herself with all the hours at home, but set up for yet another failure. "How am I going to make a pie in time for them arriving now?" You? You could have made whatever you wanted. It's not you making dinner right now. "Oh, Alice. What'll we do with your father?" No. Do not bring her into this. See, she doesn't like it either. "Oh, I know, daddy ruined everything and made you upset." It's not daddy making the baby cry. Daddy's just minding his own business.
"Was there any post this morning?" Yes. Change the subject.
"Post? I don't remember. I've been taking care of Alice all day. Washing her, changing her, feeding her, burping her, loving her." And working all day isn't caring for and loving her? "What were you doing all day? Sitting on your bum pretending to work?" Sure. If that's what you say. "Come on Alice, let's get away from Daddy and go play. Hmm? That's what he thinks we do all day. It's just easy for mummy and Alice. No crying, like this, just sleeping and playing, that's what Daddy thinks happens at home while he's out." Yes, because Daddy's never allowed to be left at home alone with Alice. Alice and her grandparents, maybe. Alice and her aunts. That's how it goes. Oh, except once. And that one time Alice and Daddy were home alone together, what happened? Nothing. Until mummy came home early and slammed the door, waking up the baby who had just fallen asleep on Daddy's chest while listening to the Beatles. Mummy doesn't count the two weeks she was in hospital recovering. Daddy didn't have to work out how to do everything all by himself in that time at all, oh no.
Oh, and there Angie goes. Trying to sing a lullaby when she can't even sing a single note in tune. Possibly the most annoying thing about the woman. Or is it how she always forgets the lyrics to classic songs but insists on making up her own idiotic ones anyway. Or how about the fact that she complains every time she's corrected and goes off in a huff at the smallest criticism. Even when it's not a criticism. But of course it's crazy if any harsh comment she makes is taken 'the wrong way'. As if there's a right way to take them. Keep chopping. Nice and small.
So, no post, then? None on the table. None according to Angie. There must be none, then. Either forgotten, or left to... not chance. "Ah! Really? Really? It's like you do this just to piss me off!" What's she found now? Must be urgent if she's running down the stairs like that. She better have put Alice down before she came screaming. Keep chopping. "Is it really such an impossible task to put your filthy underwear into the basket instead of throwing it all over the bedroom floor?" She didn't put Alice down, and now the poor child is howling, frightened for no good reason. Just take her. Take her in your arms and off to a quieter place. "No. No playing. You'll go up the stairs and clean up the mess you always make every time you enter that room, because..." No is right. You hold on to that child as if you're the only one who can lay any claim to her. As if you're the only one who can care for her. As if you're the only one who loves her.
Go. Go out of the kitchen. Out through the hall, out the door. Out of this place. Don't turn back. Not for the cries, not for the screams, not for the accusations. Just get out before you hurt Angie. Before you hurt yourself. Before you hurt Alice. Don't act, just go, get out. Keep walking. Keep walking. Suddenly half way down the road. Suddenly closer to the other future you could have had. Suddenly aware of the thing you've been trying to forget. Trying to ignore. Suddenly wondering: which door is it? Suddenly realising there is a knife still in your hands.
Angie must have been terrified when you turned round in such a rage before walking out. Alice must have been yelling her little heart out. What must she think of daddy? But it's too late now. It's done. But thank god it was only that. Even further down the street now, still with the knife, but less anger, less frustration. More distance. And more. Wondering now about every door. Behind one of these holds a different life. Completely different woman. Forgotten no longer. Edging back into the head. Into the heart. Let's go. Right now. Let's go to Penzance. Forget waiting two weeks. It's already been five years. Wasted five years. And what did she think all this time? Was she waiting for that moment to be reunited? Did she think about it at all? She must have if she's playing with all these reminders now. If she kept all those tickets for all those years. What a crazy thing to do. But then Tanya was always different. A little unpredictable. A little dangerous. But safe too. Easy, but exciting.
Maybe it's not all chosen. We make choices every day and some people choose to follow their heart even if it hurts everyone around them. Even if it gives them a bad reputation and leads to everyone talking about them. But at the end of the day at least they're happy. And they made that choice to be happy. What is happiness? What is it worth? Is it that peace that comes when you've made the right decision? That peace like right now, knowing that however mad or confused you've made someone else, at least you've gone by that instinct that told you to get out before you did something terrible. You would never hit Angie. Never. But what would have happened tonight if you hadn't walked out that door?
Past all the doors now. Onto the street. Still walking. Walking to Penzance. Could do that. Could just keep walking to the train station and buy that ticket for the first of April. If you want. It's an option. Still walking. Well?
Chip shop. Go in. Buy some pies and go back to the house. Good plan. Saved. Just go back. Like nothing happened. Back to normal. You had your break. Just needed a walk. And to fix dinner.
Why is it so hard to enter the door, though? Breathe. Take a breath and go in. Keep breathing and keep going. This is the only way. The only decision that needs to be made. There is no choice. You made it long ago when you first said no to Tanya. You broke her heart, but she didn't give up. Not until you broke it again with another girl. But maybe not, not even now with the extra little girl. But she's your choice, if not by yourself, but still yours because of that first refusal to change anything all those years ago. And then everything did change anyway.
That's it, key in the door and into the warmth. And chatter. "Jacob? Where did you go? You had me worried sick." Chatter. And crying. And chatter.
"You alright, man? We've been calling you, but you didn't pick up." Didn't take the phone. Keys were just in the pocket by chance. Don't remember how.
"I got some pies for supper. Messed up the dinner, so I just bought some from down the road." There, that sorts it. No need to look strangely in disbelief. Wow, Janice is good with Alice. Angie's in full stress mode still, but there's Janice playing with Alice, making her laugh away. How does she do that?
"You really have a beautiful baby girl, Jacob. Children are so precious. They just bring hope and peace into a home. Don't you think? And love. A little bundle of pure love that you'd do anything for, hmm? Your daddy and mummy love you. No matter what you do, eh, Alice? She knows it." Giggling away. Like never before.
Tickets! Tickets, tickets and nothing but tickets through the door. A huge bundle of used train tickets. Used plane tickets. Used boat tickets. Even one to go on a hovercraft. But still none for a future date. None to Penzance. It's still left to, whatever. Nothing can be confused now. She remembered, even through her travels to Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, Russia, Thailand, Malaysia, where didn't she go? She ticked off the main countries on her list. Their list. She wasn't even fused about Thailand. Said it was too much of a tourist hotspot. She wanted somewhere where regular travellers didn't go. Is that why she went to Mongolia?
But, certainly, nothing can be confused now. She's sending a message. It's not a post day and she's maybe even put them through during the night, but thank god it wasn't Angie who was first down the stairs today. Can't imagine how she would have reacted if she'd seen all those tickets scattered around the hallway, with Tanya's name clearly written on almost every single one.
Especially today, with the christening later. Tensions are high enough, never mind some new threat for Angie to be paranoid over. Did Tanya know about the christening? She wouldn't be that cruel. Just pick them all up and get them out of sight. To the drawer. Yes. Out of sight to the drawer with the other tickets.
"Jacob! I can't get ready with a baby in my hands. Come and take her from me, would you?" Crap. Just a couple more and check there's none missed. But Angie won’t wait, no, and she's trotting out of Alice's bedroom toward the stairs too quickly. Got them all. Check! "Jacob!" Yes. Got them all.
"Just a second!" To the kitchen. But she's chasing down the stairs. Get to the drawer. Can't be seen with all this in your hands. But she's so quick. Turn and hide them behind your back.
"What is wrong with you? You know I have to get ready. Can't you be nice and help me just this one time?" Hidden just in time. But not really hidden. Still in plain sight if she goes behind to look. Down the back of the boxers, then. The one day it would have been a great idea to get dressed before coming down the stairs. But then they might have still been there for Angie to see.
And of course, the baby's crying because of the big rush down the stairs. How does Angie do that every time? She never thinks of Alice, just pulls her along regardless. "I was going to make you breakfast. Since you're in a hurry."
She takes a second. And then chooses to believe it. Why so suspicious? Always so suspicious. "Oh. That's nice. Thank you, darling. But you can still hold the baby while you toast some bread." Lean back to secure the tickets against the counter as she thrusts Alice into new arms. Don't move until she's gone, just in case they fall. And still, why does she watch? You're not going to drop your own child.
Gone. Going up the stairs. Much more calmly. OK, Alice. Alright now in daddy's arms? Yes. Happy enough to relax and play with daddy's face. You're a good girl. A really good baby. You're happy, aren't you? Hope so.
Right. Can we move away from the counter, without the bundle in daddy's underwear falling to the floor? Slowly. Yes! We can. But, nowhere to put Alice, and scared they will scatter if re-gathered with just one hand, so no drawer for now. Toast instead. That can be done with one hand. Little awkward opening the bag, so no chance it can be closed again, but at least we got the bread out. And, no, you can't play with it, Alice. Into the toaster. And wait. Wait for the bread to toast. Wait for the mother to be ready and to take the baby with her out the door. Wait for quiet. For the chance to sort through these tickets. Sort what? Nothing. There's nothing to sort. But why is it so exciting, then? Oh, Alice. You're so lucky. You have nothing to worry about. Except being cute. Oh, or the toaster scaring you. Look, it's OK. It's just the toast. Good. No crying. Now, how to butter toast with a baby in one arm? You know, Alice, everything is alright. If daddy can make breakfast while holding you, and a pile of crap in his pants, then everything is just fine. And will be.
"So you're still refusing to come?" Definitely going to be fine, because daddy is quick to back up to the counter again, so that mummy doesn't see anything, as she walks over to take you to get your dress on. "It's not much to ask that you come to your own daughter's christening, but if that's how you want it to be remembered." Now slide over to the drawer and it might be possible to get them in there, since you have two hands again. "Only butter? No jam? It'll have to do. I don't have time for anything, really." But as soon as your hands reach the cargo, she turns round again. Always watching. "Aren't you eating? I can't eat all this by myself." No choice, slide over, grab a piece and back to the drawer to eat. "What's wrong with you? Why are you all the way over there?" Strange staring match: suspicion against flippancy; suspicion seems to be winning. And moving closer. "What is it? Why are you protecting that drawer?" And pushing flippancy out of the way, dangerously close to dislodging all the carefully protected pieces, but the drawer distracts from that calamity and fear. "What's in here that you don't want me to see?" It's not in there. Oh wait. But there is. Under that car magazine: yes, well done, you found it. "What are these doing here? I thought you threw them out. And the prospectus? Why do you have Hen's prospectus, still? What is this card? Did you draw that? Was it for me? For valentines? Well, the one you got me was much better, so it's a good think you didn't give me this one. It doesn't even make sense. What have pirates got to do with Valentine ’s Day? Why do you have all these in your drawer?" She hasn't connected them together. But she still needs an explanation. It's so hard to think with the baby crying and the mother going crazy.
Think. What can be said? Better to let her think of her own reasons, maybe. Can't be worse than the truth. But she might be looking for more reasons to be angry. Or to guilt trip and force a presence at the christening. It isn't too late for that. At this point it would take the heat off the drawer and end a lot of arguments in the house. After all, it would be supportive. For Alice. But that's the point. This isn't for Alice. It's for everyone else to feel better about themselves, as if they've protected her from some horrible thing. But the whole point is that they can't protect her. It's not up to them. Alice doesn't even know what's going on. What if, years later, she decides she doesn't want anything to do with this? She doesn't have a choice. She has to see that she always does. That’s her father's job. "It's nothing. Just some things I shoved in a drawer. I don't know why."
"There has to be a reason." Does there? Actually, even though there is, it's still unclear why. Why not throw them all away? Why keep them? Why is it somehow comforting to have them in that drawer? Just knowing they're there.
"Don't you need to leave?" Distracting and to the point. Angie doesn't like it, but it's the truth. Alice isn't dressed yet and they should have left already. She still takes a moment to finish staring.
"Yes. And I haven't finished my make up, so you'll have to get her dressed. Quickly." Angie moves off, but notices she isn't followed by the man whose arms she shoved the baby into. "Please." So please her and pretend to move until she's out of sight. Good, and one hand will have to do. Safe in the drawer now. Just for a short time; can't have them found later.
Dressing a baby in dresses and frilly pants and tiny socks is difficult enough, but adding extra length and layers to make a white monstrosity is just cruel to fathers. It's your own fault for making the breakfast excuse in the first place. But seriously, how many wrong holes can you put a tiny fist through?
"What are you doing? Why is she not dressed yet? Oh, you've upset her and I'll have to sit through mass and stand in front of everyone all alone with a crying baby. As if I needed any more embarrassment." She wasn't upset until you came in screaming. "There. Done. Easy." Jeez, how'd you do that? "You know, even if Alice doesn't thank me for doing this for her today, at least I know I've done the right thing. Will you?" It's cold in here suddenly. Left alone to stand in pathetic underwear. What is the right thing? To go with beliefs or traditions or religions? Even if they're not your own and you don't have a clue why people follow them. Doesn't everyone just do what they want? And then decide if it's right from logic and circumstances? But sometimes there's a feeling in the pit of your stomach that challenges all that. What do people do about that? Is that when they fall back on their religion to justify one action over another? Well, that feeling isn't there to change this decision. There's no need to justify standing by what you've always thought, or to pretend it's OK to fake something else just to make other people feel better. No. There's no qualms about this one.
"We're going. Get your own lunch." It's OK Alice. It won't be that bad. Just a bit of water. "And we'll talk about the drawer when I get back." So she hadn't forgotten. She seemed so casual walking down the stairs and out. Just that final snap before she closed the door. We'll talk about it then, will we? Won't you be distracted by the christening events of the day?
What's that? When did that come through the door? Penzance. 1.4.14. So she hadn't forgotten.
Bringing a crossword for the train journey has not managed to serve as a good distraction. Instead, the only thing accomplished in the last hour and a half has been an even pattern of bite marks along the pen and its lid. Just gnawing away. Oh, and of course various day dreams involving what could possibly happen on the train, upon its arrival and at the return. None of these could possibly be accurate, but we are dealing with an unplanned, unprecedented situation.
Could she be on the train? That was the thought that popped up on the way to the station. No seat number, but a clear memory of the seats chosen all those years ago. Something to help remember that time: that moment in their lives. Suddenly self-conscious, the same seat was selected this time. Then, just one minute before departure, with the seat beside still empty, the notion arose: it’s five years later, they no longer fit in seats 21 and 22. But reaching seat 27 brought the new realisation that five seats on, they wouldn’t be sitting together; even if she had been occupying that seat across the aisle. Another few years and they’d be at the table. Tanya always liked the table seats.
So was she on the train? The blatant scanning around the carriage before sitting hadn’t helped figure that one out. And she hadn’t joined at another station along the way, as far as could be told. There were other carriages, but to get the train is one thing, to hunt for someone who might not even be on it, is another altogether.
Of course, it has been five years. They must have both changed in appearance in that time. And while it was easy to picture her in each daydream and scenario from the past few months, it was always others who had seen her. They’d recognised her, but they hadn’t said she had changed in any way. Nor did they say she was exactly the same. Who knew what to look out for now. The short, bright blonde wisps of hair imagined could be replaced by anything, and that average, yet ever so slightly, well a bit more than, curvy body could have blossomed with an abundance of foreign delicacies, or suffered under stressful travel sickness. The clothes, the posture, the absorbing personality, all changed? With time, experience and hate: or love?
She could have caught an earlier train to be ready to meet on the other side. Or she might not even be planning to venture out on this unsecure plank. It is April fool’s day after all; this trick would be a long time coming. And well deserved.
Then, why get on the train? Why use the ticket? Why take the risk that comes with so many consequences, impossibly foreseen back then? The last few days had cemented that decision. But more importantly there was unfinished business to attend to today. Even if the result was to find nothing on the other side. At least then there’d be an ending to the whole thing. Staying in Newton Abbott would just leave questions and images, of an idea of what could have happened if this little action was taken. We know that from experience. No what ifs, just what was. Even the idea of that puts such finality, such conclusion, such peace on the whole issue. Still chewing on the pen; nothing else accomplished.
That’s what is needed. It needs to be finished. It was started by another, but it can only be finished if action is taken. But, this crossword is nowhere near started. And there’s still just about an hour left. OK. Seven letters. Architectural screen. Give up. Wait what are those panels they use in older movies to get dressed behind? Dressing screen? Room divider? Can’t think of just one word to describe it. But many other things come to mind. Completely unrelated. They pass the time just fine: memories and ideas.
Three hours of distracting thoughts all related to this one moment of getting off the train and out into the chilly coast. Keeping an eye out for any clue or familiarity. You really have to want to come here if you get the train, so what are all these other people doing here? It’s not exactly a stellar day. Just average English spring. Light jacket and maybe an emergency umbrella at hand. Oops. Let’s hope the sun stays out, then. Already better than the last time, though, so it was a good plan.
No-one and nothing at the train station. So what next? What did we do that first time? There were never any plans. Just explore and, in the winter, find somewhere warm. But that day was for play. The one straggling memory is that moment: huddled up on the steps by the creeping tide, so close to that pirate life, but safe on shore. “Let’s come back. I know we say only once to each place, but let’s come back here.”
Of course we will. That was the only answer that could have been offered. It was agreed before the request. But still she asked. Still, she had to make sure. She was the only one ever with doubts. Ever to think of the possibility that anything could be different between them.
She was right. It was possible. But only because she made it so. She opened that up. They were supposed to be pirates together. That’s what was agreed. Before she confused everything with other ideas. And here she is, doing that again.
“April fools, you fool.” Here she really is. The voice hasn’t changed. The presence hasn’t changed. But the beach is pretty empty and the wind sounds like whispers anyway. Was that it? Was it just whispers? You’ll never know if you don’t turn around. Go on. No, she hasn’t changed one bit. Well, she has: she looks older, slightly, in a mature, elegant way, and there’s something different about every little thing. But it’s her. It’s Tanya. “You’re here.” Of course I’m here. It was agreed before you suggested it. “You got fat!” Oh! That laugh. Like you can feel it vibrate in your heart. Wow. There was so much forgotten. “What, did Henry start giving you the leftovers instead? He looks great these days. But I kinda liked him chubby. Should I give you that nickname instead?” Was it just the previous week we last saw each other? How can she be so at ease with so much unknown? “What? Why so poo-faced? Coffee? Come on.” And there, the fingers wind together. Just like that. How did that even happen?
She doesn’t order hot chocolate anymore. Coffee. Black. “Italy ruined me for coffee. It’s part of the culture there, they even feed it to the kids, so there was no choice for me, but to join in. Of course, you easily get hooked on the good stuff, and then you’re left high and dry, but still addicted, when you go anywhere else.”
“Did you cross everywhere off your list?” It’s hard to read those eyes now. The old anxiety is gone, but that search for adventure doesn’t seem to be fully quenched. “It just seems like you have plenty of stores and memorabilia from various places.” Poised. That’s the difference in her. She’s exactly the same, just poised. Suppose some would call it mature. It’s still thrilling to be in her presence, but there’s something more settled.
“Who knows. For now. Can’t say I’ll never want to travel again, but it was time to come home. That’s an adventure in itself: sticking to one place after such frequent upheavals. I’m missing the sun, though. Not everywhere I went was sunny, but I certainly pushed up my average of sunny days in the year by getting out of gloomy England.”
“We’ve had a few good summers in the past years.” Those eyes. That smile.
“And then the floods came. Ugh. I’d rather the hot rainy seasons any day. Hot and wet is much better. At least there’s less clothes to dry off.” Those lips. Stop thinking about her lips. Don’t get lost. It’s not that type of catch up. She’s so settled. It’s so easy to be quiet. At least she lets that happen. Like she wants moment of peace together. “Jacob.” Yes? Anything. Just say it. “You have a baby.” But all women bring reality back. “And she’s beautiful.” No resentment. Support. Longing in there somewhere.
“Alice? Who the…?” Oh that laugh. Goosebumps. Her sense of humour is still innocent and cheeky. Forgot all the laughter from that old life. “It was good to meet her and Angie without you there. That would have been awkward, but with just Angie it was easier to deal with the whole situation. I didn’t mean to bump into them that day. But it suited quite well. Gave me a better insight into what you’re up to. She’s so upfront about everything. She really wants people involved in her life, no matter who it is. And she wasn’t boasting or trying to show off, she just has a small field of vision and so she shares it, even if it’s not entirely appropriate.” Guilt? Why would she feel guilty? “I’m sorry, I don’t want to belittle her. I’m sure I’d be exactly the same if I had this new little family.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” You don’t need other people like Angie does. You’d let them talk and only share the brief basics.
“How do you know? Anyway.” You don’t need to say it. I should get up and go on the next train home. But I can’t. “Jacob. What are you doing here? What are you looking for? You’re not here for me. Not to get back together or see if there’s a chance for that. You’ve got a kid, and I know that’s it for you. You’re loyal.”
“How can you say that after what I did to you?” Just hate me already.
“That wasn’t your fault. People always do things they never thought they would. It just takes the right situation and emotions, and trying to ignore them. Yes, you did it and you could have handled the situation better, but actually, you couldn’t have, because you didn’t know what to do; you only knew what you didn’t want to do or couldn’t do and waited for anything to make that happen for you. If it wasn’t the cheating, it would have been something else. You let things happen to you. That’s why you’re here. I did all the work and you followed. If I hadn’t sent you all those tickets and reminders, or I hadn’t sent the final ones for today, you wouldn’t have come. You left it up to chance, or destiny, or me, just as long as you didn’t have to make a decision for it. I’d have been more impressed if you hadn’t come.”
You’d have been more impressed? Then what was the point? Was this just a test? What for? Did I fail? What do the results show?
“Whether you feel like you love her or not doesn’t matter now. You have to choose, for once in your life: what’s your future going to be? Alice is in it, regardless. But what do you want?” What do I want? I don’t want anything. I want a break. Rest. Peace. That’s why I came. That’s what I told Angie when she found out I booked the day off work. I could have lied. I could have made up a story, but I told her I was coming here. And even though you’re giving me an ultimatum right now this is the most content I’ve been in years.
“I’m not asking you to be with me or even put me in the mix. I just want you to make some decisions in your life, to be a part of it and become a father Alice can look up to and admire. I’ve seen you over the past weeks, and you didn’t notice me. You’re walking around in a daydream, just letting everything wash over you. Snap out of it. Live your life. Choose to be a part of it. There’s so much more if you actually just look at the world.”
“But you were my world. You left me.”
“You didn’t want to come. And I couldn’t be everything to you. You were enough for me, but you couldn’t be everything. Can Angie be enough for you? I know Alice can, but don’t let Angie suffer. Choose to be with her. Choose to love her. And just do it. But don’t give her the hope and never actually show her.”
“But I could love you so easily.”
“Love isn’t easy. If you expect that, then each time it gets hard you’ll give up. The most powerful love I’ve seen has been the most difficult moments in people’s lives, and even though they don’t deserve it in moral or legal terms, or it’s just not easy or beautiful or picture perfect, they still love and are loved. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. Despite us being these rubbish humans, we can still have and give the most splendid thing possible by choosing to love. And choosing to accept it.”
You’re right. She’s right. What’s the point in living like a zombie? I died the day I decided not to go with Tanya to see the world, but I can live now if I just buck up and… wait. “Who says I didn’t come for you? I’ve regretted every day of my life since I said I wouldn’t go with you. I gave all those excuses to make it sound like I couldn’t go, but really I just didn’t want to listen to you. I liked things the way they were. I wanted it like that, but you wouldn’t let me have it that way. If love was about choosing, then I could choose right now to love Angie and that would be it. But if I did that, I’d be choosing not to love you anymore. And I can’t do that.”
“You already chose not to love me anymore. When you said no. When you let me go away, alone.”
“No. You said before, that all of that wasn’t my fault. You said I let it all happen, like today, and I didn’t actively do any of that, so then I didn’t choose it. I wanted you, but I couldn’t have you on my terms. So I wasted my time until you came back. And now you’re here. Now I can choose. So don’t tell me to choose Angie, and choose to love her and be with her when I don’t love her. You’re right, love isn’t just about a feeling, but you do have to start with that. Love isn’t just about a choice. It’s both. I don’t have that feeling for Angie. She was just there and she chose me. I did have that feeling for you.”
“But you didn’t choose to be with me.”
“Can’t I choose now? You’re telling me to choose to love and be with someone. Can’t that person be you?” I could stare in those eyes forever. Just don’t say no. Don’t let it end. I need the hope. “Henry told me that maybe people can forgive the worst things and love someone anyway. We were talking about you. You say you don’t blame me for what I did to you. So, that means you forgive me, right?” See, you can’t deny that. You’ve forgiven me for cheating on you. “So, can you choose to love me? You’ve forgiven me, even though I did the worst thing possible to you. Doesn’t that mean you’ve chosen to love me already?” OK. Think about it. Take all the time you need. Just don’t let this hope end.
“I forgave you for cheating. But that wasn’t the worst thing you could have done. Letting go of me was the worst thing possible. And you did that long before you cheated on me.”
“I’ve never let go of you. You said it yourself, I didn’t choose what happened.”
“But you didn’t choose to be with me!” Is this the end? Now I see the hurt in her eyes. Is this what she’s felt all these years? This is what she’s thought of me? “How could you love me if you let me go away?”
“I didn’t let you. I didn’t have a choice. You chose to go. You chose to leave me. But I still love you, Tanya. I never stopped. I just didn’t know how to do it. If love isn’t just a feeling, but about choosing too, then it’s not completely instinctive. We need to learn how to do it. You’re teaching me. I can learn. But I can’t learn with Angie. She already knows that. She’s known from the start that I don’t love her; I’ve never said it to her. And I say it to Alice every day. You’re right; it’s not fair to Angie to be with her in this way. I’ve been giving her hope of something impossible, but you’ve been giving me hope too. What was the point in sending the tickets and living on my street and coming here today? You didn’t just do that to see what I would do, or to tell me to be with Angie. You wanted to have an ending for what’s between us, but it would never be the end. If I left now and went to Angie, like you’re telling me to, then we’d both still be thinking about each other. More so, because of this moment. That’s not the closure we need. We both know that’s not right, and not fair to Angie. But we do have a choice. And I’ll sit here until you make yours.” So why don’t you just leave? You’re putting up such a fight in all you’ve said and in these agonised expressions and wriggles you’re making. But take all the time you need.
And there, the fingers wind together. Just like that. How did that even happen?