Sunday 12 September 2010

The L Word

Everyone has a place that they consider a ‘staple’ in their lives. Phoebe, Monica and co. had Central Perk, the Mitchells had the Queen Vic, and Blair Waldorf had the Met steps. My friends and I had this small, local bar called Purple Mustard and whatever mood we were in, that was where we would congregate.
    Having a place where the staff recognise you has its benefits; the free drinks, the continuous gossip, and the feeling of popularity. But it also has its downside. And for me that downside was Michael.

    “He’s singing to you!” Lisa says whipping her hair around.
    “Of course he isn’t,” I retort, although now that she’s pointed it out I’m not so sure. He hasn’t taken his eyes off me once since he began singing, and now as his fingers strum the guitar, I just know that he chose this song because last week I told him it was one of my favourites.
    Lisa and Josie are staring at him in awe, occasionally turning around to look at me with open mouths. “I can’t believe this,” they say in unison, exchanging looks and sniggling like schoolgirls.
    “Stop it!” I snap. “I’m sure he’s not singing to me,” but as the words leave my mouth I know I’m doubting them. It is rather odd how he won’t stop looking at me. And now, come to think of it, he does this every week when he’s up there on Open Mic night.
    The music draws to an end, and I sigh with relief. Perhaps he won’t come over. I’m sure he’s got loads of people going up to him and saying how good he was and all that. Or perhaps the manager needs him to work behind the bar tonight, as they are rather short staffed since Rodrigo's sudden departure back to Portugal. And, you know what, I’m pretty sure he told me that he has to fly to Manchester in the morning, which means that he needs to go home and get some sleep.
    So, he won’t come over, I reassure myself.
    “He’s coming over,” Josie says in what she believes to be subtle.
    Lisa scarpers from my side and sits next to Josie. The two of them are now pretending to be deep in conversation. I know they’re lying – I pretty much invented what they’re doing.
    “Hey,” Michael’s voice.
    I turn awkwardly unsure as how I should approach this. Act like I didn’t even see him up there? No. That would be rude. Act like I didn’t notice that his eyes were glued to me and not even if the ceiling were crashing to the ground could be have torn them away? Hmm, perhaps.
    I turn my head slightly to the side to acknowledge him.
    He’s leaning on the back of the sofa, his head centimetres away from mine. But I try not to notice that even with the loud music I can hear his heavy breathing.
    “I really liked the music,” I say with a smile.
    I can feel him grinning.
    “I’m really glad,” he says. “It means a lot to me. Alright ladies?” he says turning his attention to Josie and Lisa.
    They wave like lunatics and continue their ‘deep conversation’.
    “What has them so enthralled?” he asks sitting next to me.
    “I think Kate Moss just designed another Topshop dress,”
    He laughs wholeheartedly. His breath is a mix of tobacco and wine.
    “I have a gig in Manchester tomorrow,” he repeats for the second time this evening.
    “You said,” I tell him.
    “I wish I wasn’t going,”
    “It’s not that long,” I try to reassure.
    “Can we see each other?” He begins. He’s turned away from me like a shy, little boy, his foot tracing swirls on the floor, “When I get back?”
    I know exactly what he means, but I pretend I have no idea.
    “Of course,” I say, “I pretty much live here,” I wave my arms to signal the bar.
    "No,” he says curtly. “I mean alone,”
    I’m lost for words. And excuses for that matter. My eyes flick to Josie and Lisa who have now given up on their ‘deep conversation’ and are just looking at us. I half expect them to jump up from their seat and say, “Actually, we’re going away on a looooong holiday to Skegness, so she won’t be here when you get back!” But that doesn’t happen because they adore Michael.
    “Sure,” is all I manage. Like a coward.

The following Thursday came far too quickly. The girls and I were once again getting ready to meet everyone else at Purple Mustard for Open Mic night. If we were lucky some egotistical, tone deaf, deluded fool (with hopefully a beard because beards can be quite funny) would attempt the stage again, thinking that if he screams really loud it sounds just like Michael Jackson.
    “Are you looking forward to seeing lover boy?” Lisa mocks as we approach the uphill walk to the bar.
    “Please, shut up,” I say sternly just before she makes kissing noises.
    “I still can’t believe he wouldn’t stop texting you when he was up in Manchester,” Josie begins, stopping halfway to remove a chewing gum wrapper from her Next heels.
    “I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to come across quite like it did,” I jump to defend Michael. The truth is that I’ve been warming up to him this last week. I suppose it’s one of those situations where you find out someone has a crush on you, and the more you think about it, the more you like them. A forced ‘love’ in a way – the kind that are always evident when you’re in school.
    We step into the bar. The familiar whiff of berries mixed with alcohol hits us as the doors swing open. It must be from all the cheap, fruity wine that Purple Mustard seems to excel in. There is no other bar within a 200 mile radius that does fruity alcohol quite like they do.
    I spot Michael straight away as we enter. He’s perched behind the bar talking to a frequent customer. Our eyes meet but instead of smiling, I avert mine immediately. It almost feels wrong to initiate this … what is this exactly? Romance? Friendship? Flirtation? Well, whatever it is, it feels wrong.
    “Go and say hi then,” Lisa demands like a 19th century mother, dangling her daughter in the Marriage Mart.
    “Stop it, or I’ll tell everyone you slept with Rodrigo,” I snap. That shut her up.

    “Last orders, guys,” Michael shouts.
    The place is completely empty now, save for the token drunken guy in the corner, and of course, us.
    Lisa is so drunk she has initiated another kiss with her ex and they’re now sucking faces by the toilers, and Josie has fallen asleep on the table three times. Usually I wouldn’t mind, but all three times have been right in the middle of me talking. I’m trying to not take it personally.
    “You’re not drunk, are you?” Michael asks, picking up empty wine glasses from the table.
    “Me? I’m as sober as a judge,” I say. It’s one of those moments that should be followed by a hiccup.
    “How are you getting home?”
    I look around at my two friends. “Well, Lisa will probably end up going back with Tom,” I point in her direction. Michael tries not to laugh when he notices that Lisa now has her legs around Tom’s waist. “And Josie will probably be content here,” I pat her blonde hair. She twists in her seat a bit but doesn’t wake up. “So I’ll probably just call a cab,”
    He takes the dirty glasses and used bottles to the bar, and comes back.
    “Josie lives around the corner,” I shout the realisation. “I’ll just go home with her,”
    “Or,” Michael says, leaning against the table inches away from me. “You could come home with me,”
    I laugh nervously.
    He says nothing more about it, but after Lisa and Tom have waddled off back to his place, and the token drunken guy has disappeared only to reappear at exactly the same place the following night, it is only Josie and me that are left.
    “I should take her back,” I say, nudging Josie so she wakes up. “Jose! Jose, wake up,”
    “Huh? Oh. Hello,” she says, stretching like she’s been through a winter hibernation.
    “We need to go home,”
    “Was I asleep?” she asks, looking around. Surprisingly she no longer looks drunk. “I need to get home,” she jumps off the bar stool and lands on her feet, and without acknowledging me or anyone else, she walks out of the door.
    “Oh. I should call a cab,” I say quietly reaching into my bag to find my phone.
    “The offer still stands,” Michael looms behind me.
    I look up at him. His dark eyes seem daring yet affectionate and they’re burning into me.
    “I really should get home,” I say embarrassed, like I’ve done something wrong.
    “OK,” he smiles and hands me the number for the cab company.
    I call them and they say they’ll be outside within ten minutes. Michael has sat down on a table, the keys for the bar in his hand.
    “Ten minutes,” I tell him, noticing that he needs to lock this place up.
    “No problem. We can wait,” he smiles again and tilts his head towards the empty seat next to him. The keys jangle in his hands as he thinks of something to say. “I really missed you when I was in Manchester,” he tells me.
    I only smile.
    “I’ve liked you for so long. Surely you’ve noticed,”
    Actually, no. But I don’t tell him this. I smile again like an idiot (blame the alcohol for that).
    “It’s been a gradual thing. I thought you were quite fit when you walked in, but every time you’ve been here, well, it’s developed. And now I can’t stop thinking about you,” his words wash over me. It’s not the best conversation to be having when you’re 75% ethanol.
    “I think I love you,”
    Suddenly, alarm bells start to ring.
    I turn my head towards him in shock to question what he’s just said – to set him straight. But he misunderstands me, and instead his cups my face with his hands and leans in for a kiss.
    “I love you,” he whispers as he tears himself away from my lips.
    I stand up quickly, knocking my knees on the table. “Where’s that bloody taxi!” I yell.
    Michael is looking confused.
    “Actually, it’s best I walk. It’s good to sober up,” I say, making a move towards the door.
    “Did I do something wrong?” he asks, emerging from his seat, pain stricken.
    “No!” I snap. “I just want to go home,”
    “I shouldn’t have kissed you, should I?”
    No, you shouldn’t.
    “Is it the ‘love’ issue?” he asks.
    Yes, it’s the bloody ‘love’ issue, I want to say. It would have been fine had Michael just stuck to saying that he liked me – that he fancied me. That would have been appropriate because kissing someone casually is fine with situations like that. And with time it can lead to something more. But how on earth do you begin a relationship when he’s on the ‘I love you’ stage, and you’re still lagging behind on the ‘Well, he’s not bad, is he’ stage.
    I was unfair on him. But again, I’m going to blame the alcohol.
    “I just want to go home,” I say, and I can visualise the words hitting him like arrows to the heart. “I’m sorry,”
    So I leave Purple Mustard and race up the hill after Josie. When I find her she’s trying to jam her car keys into the front door lock.
    “Well, hello there,” she greets cheerfully.
    I take the keys from her hands and open the door. “Can I stay here tonight?” I ask and she nods vigorously. “Oh, and by the way, we should probably socialise in cafes from now on,”

Monday 6 September 2010

If You're in Love, Please Leave me Alone

   (Continuation of If You Can't be with him, be Cupid)

     I’m staring at the office clock, mounted proudly on the wall, and I’m waiting impatiently for it to tick tock to the time I want it to be.
    It’s Friday afternoon.
    I should be thankful.
    But it’s been such a long week that I’m now fully ready for the weekend, and these last twenty minutes of office hours seem to be the most painful. Surely, it’s time to go by now.
    And yet, the time continues to be cruel; teasing everyone until they’re at breaking point. In fact, looking around the office, everyone is transfixed by this little ornament on the wall, raising their heads from the computers every ten seconds. They say a watched pot never boils, but maybe if I throw this stress ball at it, it will fall from its throne and land in the fish tank underneath.
    That wouldn’t be fair on the fish.
    “Anything exciting planned for the weekend?” Luke asks, perching himself on my desk.
    I tear my eyes from the clock and look up at him. I once had a crush on this man. A rather bad crush, but since he started going out with one of my closest friends, the crush (thankfully) has been locked up in a small box at the very back of my mind.
    “Not really,” I drawl, resting my head on my hand.
    “Really? The way you’re staring at that clock you’d think you’re going home to something amazing,” he jokes.
    I turn my focus on him again.
    “I am. I’d like to think my home is amazing,”
    He laughs. That poetic laugh that would practically make me swoon. But not anymore. Now, I’m a grown-up.
    “Not long now,” he rises from my desk and pats my shoulder gently with the files he’s holding.
    I attempt a laugh. But I fail. My gosh, I have never been this tired.
    “And what has both of you so intrigued?” Hannah asks creeping up behind us.
    “The clock,” I say bluntly without turning around. “It won’t bloody move,”
    I can feel Hannah’s eyes rise to the location where the entire office has been obsessed with. It’s alright for her – she’s dating Luke. She has her home life come to work with her every day.
    I finally turn to face both of them. They’re standing ridiculously close to one another, cocooned in love and devotion.
    I want to hurl.
    “I bet you’re looking forward to leaving,” Hannah says, now taking Luke’s perching spot.
    “Well, yes,” I say. Surely that’s obvious.
    “Are you nervous?”
    No. I’ve gone home before.
    “Nervous about what?” Luke asks for me. I stare at Hannah trying to imagine what on earth she means.
    “For your date with Brandon,” she shouts. Everyone turns towards us, but then are distracted by the clock a mere second later.
    Oh! That! Oops!
    “I completely forgot about that,” I say feeling a little bad about it. Hannah had cornered me a week earlier telling me how upsetting it was to watch me ‘being single’. So, she very kindly offered to set me up with her cousin.
    I hate it when people do that. As soon as they’ve encountered a relationship of their own, they feel they will simply perish if everyone else is not in the same soppy state.
    But I said yes because sometimes that is the only way to get Hannah’s tight grip of your arm.
    “Brandon? As in your cousin?” Luke crosses his arms and looks at his girlfriend.
    “Yeah,” she says defensively. “What’s wrong with that?”
    “He’s divorced!” Luke shouts. “And he’s at least ten years older than her,”
    “He’s only thirty-two,”
    “And she’s only twenty-two,”
    “He’s a lovely guy. He’s smart. Hilarious. Has a great job.”
    “He’s divorced,” Luke persists.
    Hannah jumps off the desk and stares him out. Her eyes are now looking blood-shot and in all honesty I’m feeling a bit scared for Luke.
    “He’s my cousin,” she says, stepping closer and closer towards him.
    “And he’s a great guy. But only just divorced. Would you like to have been pushed together with someone who’s clearly not in the right mind for dating?”
    “He’s doing fine,”
    Luke chuckles. “He told me he cries himself to sleep every night,”
    “Well, she needs to be going out with someone,” Hannah shoves a finger in my direction.
    I look up at both of them. It’s nice to finally be acknowledged.
    “I like being single,” I tell them. “But I also like going on dates,” I try to find the happy medium. I know I’m the reason they got together, but I don’t want to be the reason they break up.
    Luke just nods, and Hannah smiles at me.
    “Sorry,” she says quietly, and I know she means it. Which is why I always forgive her.
    “6 o’clock,” someone yells.

    Two hours later, I’m sitting down on my own at the restaurant, looking frantically at the door to see if my date is here yet. Hannah only managed to flick through some Facebook pictures of him, so at the moment I’m expecting to see someone with very thick, dark hair, some stubble, and a pair of drumsticks in his hands. Goodness’ knows which photos of me she ended up showing him.
    My attention focuses on the door again. Many handsome men have entered, but all of them have walked straight past me to their appointments.
    I sigh when I look down at my phone – the digital numbers failing to move to the speed I want.
    Five more minutes, I tell myself. Then, I’ll leave.
    But I recognise him straight away when he enters, and luckily he has seen me too.
    He’s not that different from the pictures, apart from the fact that he’s now sporting quite a bushy beard and the drumsticks are nowhere in sight.
    “Hello,” I greet, “It’s an absolute pleasure to meet you,”
    “You too,” he beams, sitting himself down opposite me. “I hope my cousin wasn’t too forceful,” he jokes.
    She was, in fact. I still have her fingernail imprints on my arm.
    “Not at all,” I reply.
    I look at him as he’s scanning the drinks menu. He’s a little older than I had hoped for, but he is very attractive – in a ‘your friend’s young uncle’ sort of way. His eyes are a deep grey with thin wrinkles forming at the edges, and his hair is dark brown, which he constantly keeps sweeping away from his forehead.
    “Luke and Hannah seem to be doing well,” he looks up from the menu and tells me. “Setting up your best friend with your cousin is always a sign that your own relationship is going well,”
    I laugh. “The way they act around each other you’d think they were married,”
    “How long have they been seeing each other?” he asks, the menu now fully down.
    I try to think back to that meeting where everything was revealed. “Umm, about a month and a half now,”
    “Oh, so we shouldn’t expect wedding bells anytime soon then,”
    “Perhaps not,” I agree.
    I’m trying my very best not to ask him anything about his relationship. Although, it’s proving difficult. We’ve skimmed through a few topics and all of them have finished abruptly because it leads to a conversation about his ex-wife.
    And now I’m running out of hummus for the bread, which means I’m going to have to talk to him again.
    “So, where do you work?” I ask.
    He pauses and takes a deep breath.
    I feel like I’ve asked something seriously wrong.
    “I’ve just had to leave my current job,” he says, almost whispering.
    Oh. Definitely the wrong question to ask. Where’s the bloody waiter when you need him???
    “My wife worked there,” he begins, “Well, ex-wife now, I suppose. It didn’t feel right to continue there,”
    I smile sympathetically as I notice the pain in his eyes.
    “I’m sorry,” I say.
    “It happens,”
    But there’s something so bitter in his voice that I can tell he’s clearly not over the marriage yet. So, I don’t push it anymore. If he wants to continue with another topic, he can.
    I turn around to get the attention of the waiter so that we can order mains. When I turn back around, Brandon has buried his head in his hands.
    Is he crying?
    “Brandon? Are you alright?” I ask.
    He looks up. His eyes a bit swollen. I know that look – it’s that look that you get when you’re desperate not to cry in public and all you want to do is go home an spill your soul on the pillow.
    “Would you like to leave?” I ask gently. “We can do this another time,”
    He nods.

    That’s it!!
    If the two lovebirds want to get involved in my love life, then Luke will be in charge. Hannah clearly knows nothing.

Saturday 4 September 2010

The Country Air

As many of you have probably guessed, I am not a country girl. I never have been, despite the fact that I spent most of my childhood hanging from tree branches and grazing my knees from playing out. But the combination of growing up in north Surrey and the occasional on and off spells of living in London, have led this little child adventurer to quickly grow out of thinking of greenery in all its glory and have a very low tolerance of nature.
    I didn’t mean to become like that.
    It just happened.
    Blame London.

   “You want me to come and visit you?”
    Panic. That’s my initial emotion as I’m talking on the phone to Jo (who you would have met from two of my previous stories).
    Jo and I were housemates in the first year of university – along with four other people – but despite the close friendship we used to have, it has slowly diminished over the last few years.
    She decided to leave university after the very first year, and well, I carried on.
    But my initial feeling of panic is not over the fact that I haven’t seen Jo these last few years.
    It is pure and simply because Jo lives with the parents in a small town in East Sussex surrounded by farms.
    In fact, Jo herself mostly resides in the farmhouse while her parents and younger sister occupy the townhouse.
    But I can’t very well say no just because I can’t deal with a few cows, can I? So the next words that come out of my mouth surprise me just as much as they surprise her,
    “Wonderful,” I say cheery, “I’ll even help out!”
    But she wouldn’t hold me to that? Would she?

    So a few weeks later I’m in my car driving down to East Sussex, with a full weekend bag and an absolutely empty brain. I just don’t know what I should be expecting. So I’ve packed everything, including a pair of wellies I haven’t seen since the age of 17.
    “This is going to be fine,” I chant to myself on the journey down. “I’m getting myself worked up over nothing,”
    It doesn’t take too long to reach Jo’s front door and after wrapping the brass knocker against the door a few times, Jo springs up in front of me opening the door wide and waving her arms in the air.
    “I’m so excited you’re here!” she begins to jump, her long, light brown hair dancing along with her.
    “It’s so good to see you,” I say, giving her a big hug. “I can’t believe it’s been so long,”
    Too long, in fact. It’s bizarre to think that this time three years ago we were the best of friends. Practically inseparable. And now, we might as well be strangers.
    Jo picks up my bag and shoves it in a corner of the hallway before giving me another hug. “You’ve changed your hair,” she tells me, observing me up and down and then leading me to the living room.
    “Well, it’s been three years,” I say with a smile. “You’ve changed too,”
    And she has. Rewind back three years and Jo would have stood in front of me with dyed, bleach blonde hair, skinny jeans, some fashionable top and a wide, endearing smile on her face.
    Now, she’s wearing men’s clothing.
    Or at least, I’m hoping it’s men’s clothing.
    “Yes,” she nods in agreement, stretching out her baggy khaki trousers, “I’m a farmer now, and you,” she looks at me with a warm smile, “are exactly the same,”
    I’m a little disappointed by this. I would have liked to think that it wasn’t just my current hair colour that had altered in the last three years. But I think Jo caught on to my facial expression because she quickly said, “I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that I always expected you to turn out like this,”
    Hmm, I’m still unsure.
    But I take it as a compliment nonetheless.

    “How would you feel about going to the pub tonight?” Jo asks me from the kitchen as she prepares the dinner.
    “Love to,” I shout over the TV.
    “Oh good. I think you’ll like everyone,”
    “They’re all such a good bunch and I think they’ll all really like you too,” she continues.
    “Who’s everyone?” I ask while maintaining my attention on Come Dine With Me. It’s actually a very good episode – this woman made Stilton and broccoli soup and this other woman will complain about it.
    “My friends. People I work with. People that maintain the farm. You know, the usual people,” she lists.
    “Wow, you actually have a local pub. Like in Eastenders,” I say through a giggle as Jo comes in with the plates.
    Meanwhile, Stilton and broccoli woman is not best pleased with the complaining woman and they’re both arguing it out in the kitchen.
    “It’ll be fun to go and hang out there without being behind the bar,” Jo bites into her food.
    “How long have you been working there?” I ask casually with an eye on the TV. Cat man (called that because his cat licked the tuna before he cooked it) is trying to break up the argument but is failing rather badly.
    “About a year,” she turns to me with a full smile, “I bloody love it though,”

    I could not have prepared myself for a more picture perfect moment than when I arrived at Jo’s pub. If anyone is in ever any doubt of what a true British pub looks like, this is it.
    The interior of it is mainly Tudor with black beams hanging from the ceiling, but it’s clearly been around since the Victorian times. The d├ęcor is definitely more Queen Victoria than Elizabeth I.
    The scene in front of me is magical; there is not a single person sitting alone. All tables are filled with people drinking, talking and laughing and the staff are even joining in on the drinking games.
    “Wow,” I mouth quietly, but Jo has clearly heard me because she turns towards me with a smile and says,
    “I told you,”
    She leads the way to the far corned of the pub towards the far edge of the bar where all her friends are situated. I see hardly anyone our age, and what’s more, I see no females. From the distance there are two quite podgy men in their fifties, three late twenty-something lads in black wellies and anoraks, and a young boy who I’m sure is only about fifteen.
    “This,” Jo pushes me in front of her as if I’m the star prize of the show, “is my dear friend,”
    I smile as kindly as I can and give an awkward wave.
    “Hi,” I say politely.
    “Hi!” they all bellow back genuinely pleased to meet me.
    “Bit overdressed, love?” one of the podgy men asks as he looks down at my raincoat and shoes.
    When Jo told me to bring something waterproof, she did not specify that not all coats are waterproof. So I’ve come here wearing a black mac with a happy bow in the middle of it, which so far has proved to be more absorbent than a sponge.
    And as for my shoes, well, I’d rather not mention them. Let’s just say that Marc Jacobs needs to do a ‘farmyard’ collection.
    “It seemed like a good idea when I left the house,” I laugh, which is soon overshadowed by podgy man’s laugh. My goodness, he certainly has an opera voice.
    “May I get you a drink?” one of the late twenty-somethings asks me, but I just shake my head and point to Jo. She has dashed to the other side of the bar and is shouting at the barman who from what I can gather has given her the wrong drink.
    I stand there in silence until Jo returns.
    “Here’s your drink,” she says, still annoyed that they had got it wrong the first time. “Apparently that kid doesn’t know the difference between Smirnoff and Corona,”
    “Maybe he just misheard you,” I say, taking pity on the new guy.
    “Bloody amateurs,” she mouths and sits herself down on the last remaining bar stool.
    “It’s a nice pub,” I say to no one in particular, trying my very best to start a conversation.
    “Oh dear, I haven’t introduced anyone yet,” Jo realises and sets her drink down on the bar. With one quick (unladylike) jump she’s standing next to me.
    “Right, this is Craig, Ben, Tim, Don, Pat and Tim,” she says.
    Two Tims?
    I try to remember everyone’s names but I can feel that the Tim’s will prove to be the most difficult.
    “So what do you do?” one of the guys asks. I’m pretty sure he’s Ben.
    “I’m working in marketing and PR at the moment,” I tell him. “In London,” I finish off.
    “Oh, right,” he says, and takes a gulp of beer.
    “And what do you do?” I ask back.
    He smiles at me angelically setting down his drink. “Oh, this and that,” he says, motioning his words with his hands.
    I’m not too sure where to go from that. How strange that he kept it so vague.
    “But, Craig here manages Jo’s farm,” Ben says, patting his friend on the back.
    “Oh, wow,” I say genuinely. “That’s really awesome. How long have you been doing that?”
    “About three years,” he says. “Since she came back actually,” and looks at Jo approvingly. I can tell straight away there’s something between the two of them; something that even they aren’t sure about yet.
    “And how are you liking our humble village?” Ben asks me through what I can only describe as a wicked smile.
    “I’m liking it very much, thanks. I think I’m a little bit out of my comfort zone, but I’m young,” I say. “I’ll learn,”
    His smile widens further.

    It turns out that it only takes me two and a half Coronas to loosen up a little and start enjoying myself.
    We have now left the pub and are making the twenty minute walk back to Jo’s farm. Well, Jo said it would be twenty minutes.
    “I know a short cut,” she had said, and the rest of us followed like lemmings. But now I’m pretty sure twenty minutes passed about ten minutes ago, and yet fields are all that are in sight.
    Don, Pat and the Tims walked off about fifteen minutes ago (probably because they saw sense) and now the four of us seem to have teamed up in groups of two. Jo and Craig are walking together quite a bit ahead of us, and Ben and me are trailing behind, eyes mainly on the ground.
    “Are you cold?” he asks after my teeth chatter.
    “Yes, but it’s fine,” I inform. “I’m always cold,”
    He giggles.
    I take another step and wince when I hear a squelching sound beneath my feet.
    “Oh no,” I say. Please, do not let it be cow dung.
    Ben leans down to inspect, taking my arm so I don’t fall over. “Don’t worry,” he laughs. “It’s just mud,”
    We carry on walking. Mainly in utter silence. It feels utterly worse that about twenty metres ahead of us Jo and Craig seem to be having the funniest conversation ever.
    “So, what exactly does ‘this and that’ mean?” I ask Ben, not bearing to be shrouded by silence a moment longer.
    He laughs. “You’re still thinking about that?”
    I don’t respond, just smile, so he continues.
    “I own the pub,” he says casually.
    “That pub?” I stop in my tracks and point behind us, even though the pub in question is not there.
    “Yes, that pub,” he leans in to clarify.
    “So why didn’t you just say that then?”
    “It’s a long story,” I can sense he doesn’t particularly want to talk about it, but carries on anyway, “I bought it from my dad. He was having financial difficulties,” He turns to me, and his deep blue eyes show remorse, even in this dim moonlight. I’m pretty sure I can see the blueness of them – in fact, I’m certain.
    “It doesn’t feel right to talk about it in front of him,” he spills.
    I stop in my tracks again. My brain is winding through the happenings of the night, desperately trying to recall the precise point that I met Ben’s dad.
    “Don,” he says, a little impatiently. “The jolly one,”
    I try to hide a grin but Ben has seen it and smiles too.
    “Don’s your dad?” I ask, stupidly pointing behind me again.
    “Yes,” he giggles.
    “Oh,” I reply. And then after a while, “You look nothing alike,”

    “I have to work tonight,” Jo comes in abruptly to the kitchen. “The manager at the pub just called and they’re short staffed. Would you hate me if I go?”
    “Of course I wouldn’t,” I tell her, although a small part of me is lying. She can’t leave me here on my own.
    With all these animals.
    “I tried to get out of it, but I feel awful saying no to them,” she’s looking at me with big, round eyes that I almost feel like the one that should be apologising.
    “I’ll be fine,” I smile. “I’m a big girl now,”
    “Hmm,” she stands there pondering. I feel like I should be scared. The last time Jo looked at me like that we ended up partying with eleven army guys. And if I recall correctly, she went home with one of them.
    “I’ll ask Ben to keep you entertained,” she blurts out and leaves the kitchen.
    I follow her out to the hallway. “Umm, Ben and I aren’t a very good mix,” I tell her.
    She looks up at me as she puts on her wellies. “Don’t you like him?”
    “Of course I like him. No, it’s not that,” I’m struggling to find the right words to say. “We don’t have much in common,”
    “Trust me,” she says once her wellies are well and truly on her feet, “ You and Ben have more in common than you think,”
    I cross my arms and stare at her, unsure of what she could be talking about. “Does he like Gossip Girl too?” I try to joke.
    Jo lets herself laugh, “No,” she clarifies. “He went to uni just like you. He lived in London just like you. He even worked in marketing, just like you,”
    My lips have formed an oval shape at the sheer surprise of it.
    “His dad racked up a few debts, so he came back down here, bought him out and turned the pub back around to profit,” she picks out two scarves and tries them both out in front of the mirror. “That was about…” she stops to think, “…five years ago,”
    I guess looks can really be deceiving. I honestly thought he was some country boy, completely patriotic to the surrounding soil only, never having set foot in a busy town.
    “So, I think you’ll have plenty to talk about,” she smiles at me. By this point I’m convinced she’s playing Matchmaker. “I’ll text him. Shall I say 6?”
    I just nod, and watch her leave.

Ben has been in the living room with me for about thirty minutes. And much to Jo’s distress, the marketing talk has already run out. Although, she was right about the fact that we have more in common than I previously thought.
    “You're bored, aren’t you?” he asks. I turn my head quickly to his direction. He’s sitting down casually on the armchair, one hand raking his sandy blond hair.
    “No,” I say rather quickly.
    “Really? Because you’ve been sighing for the last twenty minutes,” he says, that wicked smile never leaving his face.
    “I’m really sorry,” I apologise sincerely.
    He stands up. “Let’s go for a walk,”
    “Out there?” I point outside, instantly scolding myself for sounding so stupid.
    He looks around the room, “I’m not sure this room is the best place for a walk. The outside world has much more of a charm. As lovely as Jo’s living room is,”
    I smile, but say nothing.
    “You can’t honestly be that much of a city girl,” he says, sitting down on the sofa next to me. “What’s wrong with outside?”
    “There are animals and stuff,” I argue back like a little child.
    He laughs at that. “There are also animals in London, you know. Foxes and pigeons,”
    My head swivels in his direction in the blink of an eye. I look at him sternly. “Don’t even get me started on pigeons!”
    “Grab your coat,” he says, rising from the seat. “Actually, on second thoughts, grab Jo’s coat,”
    Ha! Ha! Very funny!!

So far on our walk the outside world has been rather friendly (mud and puddles aside). There is a sparkling moon out which leaves behind the most amazing shade of silver on the outskirts of clouds, and the sky is that perfect shade of blue and black.
    “I can hear an owl,” I say to Ben, scanning the surrounding. Despite the romantic view, there is definitely an eerie air around. It must be the silence. I can’t say I’m used to this.
    “Keep walking,” he tells me, not even bothering to look at me. Somehow though I know he’s smiling.
    We walk a further twenty seconds.
    “You and your dad have very normal names,” I decide to inform him. This time around he does look at me. Quizzically. “Don. Ben.” I say aloud, liking the way they form on my tongue. “Do you have any other brothers or sisters? And if so, what are they called?”
    That quizzical look in his eyes does not part immediately (and who could blame him). “I have an older brother, and he’s called Don. After my dad.”
    “Don.” I say again, emphasising each letter. “Just Don and Ben?”
    He stops abruptly which causes me to bump into him. “Sorry,” I whisper, sensing that he’s annoyed with me.
    But I’m completely wrong, because when I look up, his smile is broad and he’s gazing down at me with intensity.
    I remain there, looking up at him unsure of what to do. “Or is it short for Benjamin?” I say sheepishly, fully aware that he hasn’t spoken.
    But still with a smile on his face, Ben turns away from me and continues walking, “This way,” he says, “And it’s short for Benedict,”
    “Benedict,” I repeat the name aloud. “It’s a rather unusual name these days,” and start following him on the walk.
    “Blame my mother,” he says, kicking a loose rock with his boot.
    “I like it,” I run a couple of steps so we’re walking side by side. “I just finished reading a book when the hero was called Benedict,”
    “Oh yeah?” he turns to me, “What was it called?”
     “An Offer From a Gentleman. It was a very good read,”
    “Did it have a happy ending?” We’ve both stopped and are facing each other.
    I nod.
    “You’re not shivering,” he says.
    I look down at Jo’s coat, a bit bewildered by the subject change.
    “See? All you needed was a good coat,” His hand sweeps along my arm and it feels like it’s burning into me. His eyes are twinkling brightly in the moonlight and at this closeness I can see every contour of his face. Every sleek line of his bone structure. He’s incredibly attractive and I have no idea how I’ve only just come to realise this.
    “Are we almost there?” I ask, desperate to move on. The atmosphere around us is palpable and it’s taken me by surprise. Only a moment ago I was reciting his name like a two year old learning new words, and now I’m mesmerised by him.
    “Just around the corner,” his voice is so gentle and he doesn’t take his eyes off me.

Thirty seconds later we have arrived at Ben’s chosen destination.
    “I didn’t realise it was literally around the corner,” I muse as I pull my feet away from another patch of mud.
    “Come and sit down,” Ben says patting his hand on an empty spot next to him.
    “On a tree trunk?” I ask, eyeing it as if a swarm of wasps will appear from the other side.
    “Yes. A tree trunk,” he begins impatiently rising from his seat and pulling me down next to him. “Now sit down and look,” I follow his gaze.
    And I’m lost for words.
    Ahead of us lies a view of overlapping fields bathing in the silkiness of the moonlight. For miles ahead all the eye can see is a beautiful stretch of a midnight landscape. This is a blank canvas. No concrete jungle has intertwined its vines here yet. Even Monet wouldn’t have been able to do this scene justice.
    “So, city girl,” Ben’s voice sounds velvety in my ear, “what do you think?”
    “It’s stunning,” I say, realising that I haven’t blinked yet.
    “The country isn’t all bad, eh?”
    I shake my head.
    “Are you warming up to the country?” he asks, edging closer, his hand covering mine with one slick move.
    I turn towards him, our noses practically touching. “It’s not so bad,” I say with a hint of a smile.
    “Good,” he says, approving. “Now,” his other hand reaches around my shoulder, stroking the back of my neck, “Kiss me,”

Wednesday 1 September 2010

All's Well That's Not Well

(Continuation of Azure Like It)

    “I’m sure he’ll turn up today. He always has a way of popping up when you’re least expecting him,” Jo tells me as she takes another spoonful of Cheerios.
    I look at her dubiously. Jo always has a way of looking at the bright side of things – she sees the world how she wants to see it, rather as how it actually is. And I have to admit, nine times out of ten she ends up being right. I hate her for that.
    “He didn’t turn up last week, nor the week before, so I highly doubt he’ll spring out of nowhere this time around,” I tell her, grabbing my bag from the sofa and shaking crumbs off it. “Anyway, I’m rather late so I better go.” I hear a muffled ‘bye’ through her full mouth as I leave the flat.

    “You’re late!” Mel hisses as she opens the double doors.
    This is the first time I have been late in the seven months I have been there, but I don’t bother to argue. These last few weeks Mel has been looking for any excuse to fire me and I certainly do not want to offer her a reason.
    “I’m sorry. Traffic,” I lied and made my way upstairs to the staff area to put my bag down. I’m just about to make myself a cup of coffee when I hear her beastly footsteps march up the stairs.
    Please, don’t be mad at me, I think.
    “Did you hear that phone conversation?” she asks me, somehow expecting me to have sonic hearing.
    “Umm, no,” I cautiously say. Is this a trick question? Have I been a bad sales assistant? Should I have been listening out?
    “Sinead can’t make it today. Apparently she’s coughing up phlegm. Urggh, some people are so inconsiderate,” she yelps as she grabs a folder to scan through phone numbers. “Now I have to spend all morning ringing the other girls to see if they can make it in on such short notice,” she slams the folder so hard on the table that I’m almost convinced I heard it scream.
    But this is typical Mel – it’s one rule for her when she’s ill, and a completely different rule for another. Back in November she told me I wasn’t allowed to go to Paris with my family the week before Christmas, despite the fact that I only worked Saturdays and the holiday would be during the weekdays. Naturally, I obeyed and had to spend the week prior to Christmas home alone. AND what’s worse is that I wasn’t even called in for extra time because it was ‘surprisingly quiet’.
    “Typical!” Mel’s voice cascades through my thoughts and abruptly I’m brought back to earth.
    “What’s wrong?”
    “Dani, nor Zoe can come in today,”
    “It’s not like it’s Satuday. It’s not like it’s the beginning of the Summer collection coming in. It’s not like people won’t be rushing in to buy all the new crap!”
    “Oh,” I say again, realising full well that I sound like an idiot.
    “But,” she says with a wide smile. “The show must go on,” and marches back downstairs, cursing loudly at a loose poster falling limply from the wall.

    It is now almost lunchtime and the store is barely busy. We had a brief spell of panic when an hour earlier an entire family of American tourists came in, but other than that it has been a rather serene day.
    So serene in fact that Anthony has slipped entirely from my mind. Mel has disappeared at the back to speak to Head Office, and Clara is behind the till doing whatever she does when she’s not ripping wings of butterflies.
    But the peace doesn’t last long.
    “Excuse me, Miss,” a friendly voice echoes from behind me. I turn my head slightly, not quite meeting his gaze. There’s no point pretending. I know exactly who this is.
    “I’m looking for a tangerine dress. It has to be tangerine. Or Satsuma, if you have that. But definitely not orange,”
    I can’t help but giggle. So I turn around to say hi.
    “Hello,” he beams, standing far too close.
    “Hello,” I say right back, a smile still attached to my face, which I desperately want to wipe off. But I’m failing rather badly.
    I see Clara peer at me from the till, so I quickly change my tone of voice. “Can I help you with anything?”
    Anthony just giggles and then in a voice loud enough for Clara to hear says, “Yes, I’m looking for a coat. For my mother,”
    “We’re not currently stocking many coats,” I begin, edging the both of us further away from Clara, “since it’s mid Spring, but…” he cuts me off.
    “I couldn’t care less about coats,” he clarifies when we’re completely out of earshot. “I just wanted to say hello,”
    He smiles.
    I want to kiss him right there and then.
    But I refrain.
    I’m a professional sales assistant, after all.
    “I haven’t seen you for a while,” I say, trying to spin the conversation.
    “Have you missed me?” he jokes, grazing my hand with the back of his fingers.
    I immediately pull my hand away, and scowl at him for even trying.
    “I’ve been back at university,” he informs.
    “You go to university?” I ask, dumbfounded.
    “You see, this is the exact reason you need to go on a date with me. There’s just so much you don’t know,”
    “But you gave me your card?” I ask.
    “Yes,” he says, unsure as to where I’m going with this.
    “Oh, I just assumed you were working,” I go to a rail of clothes that looks a bit messy. One by one, I start sorting the racks out.
    “I had those made for networking events,” he tells me. “I go to a lot of those,”
    My mind tries to focus on the rail I’m sorting out, because I know for a fact that if I turn around and look at him, he will ask me out. And I will say yes.
    Anthony has been coming in to the store every Saturday since we met – much to Mel’s disapproval, and every single week he’s been lingering around, making me laugh, waiting until I have my lunch hour, and then finally escorting me back to the shop. It always starts with a “So will we go out tonight?” and it always ends with me saying, “No”. But my gosh, this boy is persistent. Apart from these last two weeks, he has religiously come to see me. Most guys would have given up after the first couple of rejections, but Anthony has remained loyal.
    And I’m unsure why.
    What’s more is that I’m unsure why I keep saying no.
    I turn around at last to meet his eyes. He grins at me and leans in closer. If it weren’t for Clara who is now glaring at us from the till, and the two customers floating around the shop, I’m pretty sure he would have kissed me.
    “I’m only going to ask this once more,” his voice almost a whisper. I smile sheepishly getting my brain geared up for a ‘yes’. I have to say yes. I just have to.
    “Would you like to go out sometime?” he says casually. He smiles down at me and stands up straight. I can tell he’s absolutely sure that this time around he will get a yes. Even I’m convinced of it.
    But somehow those little letters can’t form on my lips, and as we stay there in silence for what feels like ten years, all I manage is, “No,”
    I can tell he’s shocked. He seemed to think that he had charmed me so much that I would run to his arms like in an Audrey Hepburn film and shout my love for him through happy tears.
    “Fine,” he says with a forced smile. I’ve hurt his ego. “I’ll see you around,”
    Two seconds later he’s out of the door and I’m standing there reciting the conversation again in my head.
    Why did I say no? Why??
    And there it is.
    The end.
    Isn’t it?
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