Even from the reflection of the number 12 bus, I can tell how tired I look. Pallid and pasty, like the licky bit of a custard cream. Thought I might get away with it another day, but this ladder in the foot of my tights is visible now, and creeping up my ankle every time I move an inch. My worn office heels hurt anyway, and make me stand wonky so I change back into my comfortable Ugg (fake) boots. The St. Lucia holiday billboard across the road makes me smirk with a sense of irony as I take a step back from the heaving crowd forcing their way onto the bendy bus while the dreadlocked driver yells at mums who are ramming their prams into the walkway.
‘Somebody needs to get off the bus! It’s too full.’
‘Can’t you see it’s pouring with rain?’ One cockney sounding mum shouts right back.
‘Fold your pram or get off the bloodclart bus!’ replies the driver with a heavy West Indian accent.
‘But I’ve got shopping in ‘ere!’
‘You didn’t hear me the first time?’ The bus driver switches off the engine, leans back and folds his arms as if he’s got all the time in the world. Everyone groans, people start yelling desperately as if the end of the world is nigh, and if they waited for the next bus, they would meet some type of imminent doom. But I just stand back under the shelter and drown out the swearing by gazing at the billboard across the road. I’m that girl stretched out in a polka dot bikini on the white sand. The bus driver isn’t irate; he’s on the beach too and we’re both drinking rum punch in a coconut shell while the mums build sandcastles with their kids. One day I’ll exchange these gloomy clouds for something totally different. Somewhere like an old bazaar in North Africa – a trek to some South American temple or a fly drive tour through the Far East. As soon as I can afford it, I’ll go.
Melanie has lent me her huge golf brolly to pick up a new toaster for the office, but I’m still shivering and wet from the heavy downpour. I mean, she could have waited for the torrential rain to ease, would it have killed her to live without her crumpets until tomorrow? But here I am again, a dog’s body and complaining to everyone else apart from her, but that’s because she won’t listen. It took her nine months to learn how to pronounce my name properly and stop calling me Care-a-lyn. Do I look like a care bear? I’d love to care bear stare right through the doors of her office and force her to give me a chance to do something meaningful, instead of answering calls, making teas, and tagging along to her tennis club on Monday evenings. I’m sure we discussed developmental opportunities when I first started, but so far I haven’t spotted a career ladder to climb in her company. Well, I guess I have to wait until she gets her business off the ground.
Ten minutes later, another bus rolls along. Luckily, I manage to squeeze on before the doors shut, and with a big old sneeze, pull my umbrella down, looking around at the sombre faces surrounding me at 11:15 am. At Marble Arch, I jump off and rush into Primark to buy a fresh pair of tights for £1 and after that, I go to McDonalds to order a cheeseburger for the same price. There’s a stool facing the wall in the downstairs seating area and I take it. But the air con is making me feel even colder, so I scoff my breakfast/lunch quickly so I can beat the lunchtime crowds in Oxford Street.
The fragrance counter is tempting, but I resist being stopped by a swarm of perfume ladies waving tester paper in my face as I manoeuvre through the bright isles and into the toilets to change my tights. Walking back through John Lewis, I’m really in the mood to skive and wander around the shops just to kill time.
‘Hey, Caralyn!’ A familiar voice calls out. There are about 6 million people in this city, and I’m running into the last person I want to see. It’s too late to dive behind the display sofa, or freeze in a vogue like pose, pretending to be a mannequin. He’s walking towards me with rounded shoulders, looking completely destitute and it’s all my fault. I’ve done this to him. I’m the reason why his hair is a total mess. His chin hasn’t seen a razor for at least two weeks. But he still looks gorgeous.
‘Hi Max.’ As a force of habit, I hug him and feel really awkward afterwards. I’m waiting for him to say something, but he’s just looking down at his battered Nike trainers. I bought them for him ages ago, and told him a thousand times to get rid of them, but he’s got attachment issues with his clothing and won’t throw anything away.
‘What are you doing here?’ I finally ask.
‘Avoiding the wet weather before I go and flog some mix tapes,’ he replies as we stroll around with no sense of direction, past Egyptian cotton towels and ruby satin bedspreads. Why doesn’t he just get a proper job? That’s the question I asked him at least a thousand times, but he doesn’t want to touch anything that remotely resembles an honest day’s work unless it involves music superstardom. Every other question in my mind seems inappropriate to ask, such as – how are you now I’ve left you? Do you think about me as obsessively as I think about you? Has your entire life also caved in following the demise of our relationship?
‘This rain hasn’t let up for two days,’ I say. ‘It makes everything and everyone look depressed.’
‘I don’t see it like that,’ he replies with that calm, soothing voice of his. Damn him. ‘This rain reminds me of lazy Sunday afternoons, sitting under the duvet with you, having tea and chocolate biscuits.’
‘Or flicking through the dodgy satellite channels and finding nothing to watch.’
‘We didn’t need television to occupy ourselves.’
I turn to pick up a toaster so that he doesn’t see the flush in my face. If I keep looking at him, that will be it. I’ll melt into the carpet if I keep gazing into those hazel green eyes of his and before I know it, I’ll be moving back into his horrible flat.
‘I’m going to buy this for work. Ours broke down and my manager can’t function without it.’ I look out for a till, and Max backs away.
‘We can still be friends, right? I’m not bitter towards you or anything and I understand why you moved out. As much as it kills me to admit it, you deserve better. But do I have to lose my best friend as well as the love of my life?’
Staring at him, I don’t know how I managed to pack my bags, look him in the face and tell him it was over. But I have to stick to my decision. ‘For now, Max, I don’t think we can be friends.’
‘Well, whenever you’re ready, you know where I am. See you around, Cara.’ He pulls his holdall full of bootleg CDs around his shoulder, and walks off towards the escalator.
Back at the office, I’m surfing the net looking for property to rent. No-one can blame me for having zero motivation to do any real work, not with that conversation replaying in my head. Was I too harsh? Perhaps we should have just gone for a coffee and I should have said something nice to him, something to help him feel better instead of kicking him while he was down. But then again, he could have used that as an opportunity to worm himself back into my life. I did the right thing – taking control of my life and going it alone. It seems like I’ve scoured every property web page in cyberspace looking for something trendy and close to the city but nothing comes even close to being within my price range. My contact lenses feel sticky by the time Melanie comes out of her office and sighs at me.
‘Tell me that you look like crap because you’re hung over. I’d rather you come into work high or smashed than work another day with all that is dark, terrible and loveless,’ she says.
‘Why, thanks Caralyn for soaking yourself in the quest for a toaster that could only be purchased from John Lewis,’ I huff.
‘Sarcasm does not lighten the mood,’ says Melanie as she care freely waltzes into the kitchen and makes me her posh jasmine pearl tea that I pretend to like, but it looks, smells and tastes like an abandoned pond. I guess frogs would enjoy it, providing it was cold.
‘I’m sending you home at 4pm, divert the phone to voicemail and promise me that you’ll use the extra time I have generously given you to sort your life out.’
Mum is still madly in love with her pressure cooker. She takes off the lid and stands well back as hot steam escapes from her lamb and lentil stew.
‘Taste this for me.’ She holds out the wooden spoon, and I blow before sipping on the broth.
‘Mmm, nice. I’m not very hungry though, mum.’
‘But Caralyn, you’re wasting away. Although I guess that being a little thin has to be better than comfort eating like the neighbour’s daughter in law. Do you know she ate herself into a state of morbid obesity when she walked in on her husband making whoopee with a doorstep saleslady?’
‘I did spend the first night after breaking up with Max binging on Magnums. Then I got totally plastered on Lambrini, how sad is that?’
‘It’s an absolute scandal. Apparently he’s off with this sales lady somewhere in the Cotswolds whilst she has to keep the newsagents afloat. It’s a wonder how she manages to get up in the morning, let alone squeeze through that shop door…RICHARD!!!’
Dad emerges from his study with a sallow look on his face, and mum serves dinner. I eat a little, and push the potatoes and lamb around my plate, because she won’t notice that I’ve barely eaten after she starts loading the dishwasher.
‘How’s your sermon plan going?’ I ask dad.
‘Nowhere. Thirty years in the business, and I’m running out of things to say,’ he replies distantly as he scribbles over his notes.
‘I’m hoping to move out within the next couple of weeks. I’ve saved up a deposit, and…’
‘Nonsense, Cara,’ Mum chimes in. ‘Are you expecting to flat share again? Why don’t you save for your own place and stay with us in the meantime?’
‘I really appreciate your help, mum, but I can’t live without my independence.’ Mum hasn’t stopped munching my ears since I bundled through the door with my suitcases. That’s the main reason why I want to get out. She’s been the one providing the box of tissues, doing all of my laundry and cooking – generally treating me like an invalid. Some people would think I’m crazy for seeing things that way. She’s a practical servant, and I still have my own room in their idyllic vicarage. They don’t pay for it, so they would never expect me to part with a single penny. I remember the day I left here for Uni – I was so excited about the prospect of being my own person and breaking away from my sheltered upbringing. So at the fresher’s ball, I hooked up with some senior year stud and in a drunken stupor, lost my virginity in the science lab. After making a confession to my then room mate Tam, she told her sister. Her sister told her boyfriend. Her boyfriend told his mates. His mates told their girlfriends, and they spread the entire affair through the halls of the University. Overnight, the perception of a sheltered girl of puritanical upbringing turned into one of an air headed, alcoholic slut. But Tam got me through the first year, she’s the only one who didn’t judge me. The second year wasn’t so bad and now I’m on a break, just for a while to figure out what I want for myself career-wise. Unlike Tam, who knows exactly what she’s doing.
‘You earn disgusting amounts of money and still have a flat share. I’m begging you to get a nice house all to yourself so I can come and crash with you!’ I place Tam on loudspeaker while I rummage through my suitcase for my pyjamas. Refusing to unpack is my declaration to everyone, especially myself that I won’t settle back with my parents just because of Max.
‘Hurry up and get a proper job so you can afford to live in the same area as me!’ Tam replies.
‘Can’t you hook me up with a hot partner at the firm?’
‘Sure, if you don’t mind having champagne and oysters with a 58 year old.’
Thoughts of an old man removing his dentures to suck back oysters rattle me beyond description. ‘God no. I take it back.’
‘Listen, I have to take a conference call from Seattle,’ she says.
After she goes, I’m faced with the silence of the room. I open the window for a bit and look at the rustling trees in the garden. The dimly lit cobblestone path that leads to the small row of shops and quaint restaurants in the village. Okay, so it’s not a real village, it’s just Walthamstow Village. But it’s an oasis of greenery, almshouses and listed buildings, surrounded on all sides by a degenerate concrete jungle. It’s peaceful here, but for some reason, I’m missing the sound of sirens. Passing freight trains at what-the-hell o’clock. Hackney kids blasting out grime music on their phones and dispersing after Max shouts out and asks them if they want to buy Vanilla Ice’s greatest hits. I miss turning around in our bed, and looking at his eyelids flutter when he slept.
At 9pm, with a dizzy head from a lack of food, I try and get to sleep.
12:30pm, and wide awake.
I turn on the lamp; pick up my mobile and almost speed dial Max. Look at the phone forever. Only after leaving do I remember how much I laughed when we were together. He’s the only person who truly gets me. I take out my notepad and begin to remind myself of all the reasons why we’re not together, all the reasons why I won’t go near that speed dial!
- Max has his big fat head in the clouds and will never be the next Timbaland, Farrell or any other big songwriter
- Max is broke
- Max is about as useless as an ice cube in the Antarctic
- Max doesn’t comb his hair enough
- Max is the king of slobs, a dirty slob, slob, SLOB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The release of tension follows, and I lay my head down, but can’t sleep. I imagine riding a camel through the Sahara. A sandstorm begins. The poor camel is blinded by the sand. My silk shawl does little to protect me. I am doomed. Alas, some bronzed strapping Egyptian nomad rescues me, brings me to his nearby tent and feeds me dried apricots and dates. They taste yuk, but he looks yum. He has dimples. Killer pectorals. Broad shoulders. Kissable skin… then…It’s no use, his face keeps morphing into Max so I add more points to the list.
- Max is a waste of time, space and money
- Max can’t even afford his council tax rent
- Max has mice, ugh!
- Max is not father or husband material
- Let him go and stop thinking about him you silly cow.
Closing my notebook, I begin to speak the self motivating statements just like my manager does to cover for stress as I lie down. ‘Fake it ‘til you make it,’ I say to myself. ‘No-one wants to be around a misery guts.’
Read the rest of my new novel online for free: http://www.authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=22301