I know snow when I see it

I pulled the bright yellow blanket up around my neck and rubbed my cheek on its satin edge. This simple act had been comforting me since I was a baby, and although it was tatty now, it still worked its magic when I needed it. If I could feel that softness against my skin then I was safe. It had seen me through childhood illnesses, lonely evenings, and the first terrifying months of marriage. I had cocooned myself in it during the awful years of war, when Kenneth was somewhere out there, risking his life for us all and I was lying sleepless each night in our uncomfortable bed, hoping he would never come back.

A squeal jolted me fully awake.

“Snoooooooow! Come on daddy, I know snow when I see it!”

Thomas was already bounding down the stairs. Snow. That’s why the light had changed, and why the silence seemed so ominous – the snow brightened everything and dampened it all at the same time. The birds weren’t singing, the animals were shut in their barns, all the things we were used to seeing had been hidden under a thick white carpet. It didn’t matter what ugliness lay beneath, everything on the surface looked perfect.

“Oh bloody hell.”

A groan from next door. Then a wail as the baby woke up and another muffled swearword. We’d never used such language before the war, well I still couldn’t bring myself to say anything worse than ‘hell’s bells’ to be honest, and then only if I stubbed my toe or snagged my stockings. But Margaret had a picked up a fine new vocabulary from the land girls that she wasn’t afraid to use. Arthur didn’t like it of course, it wasn’t fitting for the vicar’s wife to be ‘effing and blinding’ as he put it. But times were different now, we’d all changed. Margaret had worked hard to keep food on people’s tables while the men were away. The parishioners remembered that, and they forgave her the occasional slip. As long as it didn’t happen in church of course, nobody would have stood for that.

Downstairs I could hear Thomas rattling the back door knob, letting out little whoops of excitement as he peered through the glass into the garden. I’d been here a week already, but I still couldn’t quite get used to so much chaos in the mornings. Once Kenneth was demobbed, we were back in the same routine as before the war. Breakfast had to be on the table at eight sharp. Egg, if I could get one, hard-boiled. Toast crisp but not burned. Tea, weak, two sugars. He’d stroll downstairs and eat it in the dining room on his own while I stood quietly in the kitchen until I heard the front door slam. Then the silence would be all my own until the evening. The merry disruption of family life, especially with an almost new baby, took a lot of getting used to.

A head poked round the door.

“Connie darling, could you pop down and stop Thomas rattling that bloody knob? Make sure he’s got his slippers on too, will you. And let Daisy in, she’ll be frozen poor thing, there’s a bone from last night in the pantry you can give her. I’ll feed Rose up here.”

“Just give me a minute…” I replied, surprised at how croaky my voice was.

“You’re an angel. And if you could put the water on for the porridge that would be marvellous, Arthur’s got a funeral today, you know how grumpy that makes him. Ada Mills from Chipperton. You could pop along if you like, fill up the pews a bit, help with the tea afterwards. Bloody Hitler got her boys, and her husband… well, that’s a story for later on. Hurry up darling, Arthur’s on his way down to get the fire going.”

The head disappeared and I sat up, pulling the blanket closer as the cold air hit me. As I breathed out, my breath left a shiver in the air. Good old Arthur, at least it would soon be warm in the kitchen. I reached under the bed for my slippers and wrapped myself as tight as I could in my old dressing gown. I’d bought it for my honeymoon along with what Margaret described as a ‘saucy something’ for underneath, little realising that Kenneth would rarely require me to undress before he pushed himself into me.

Sitting at the small dressing table in the corner of my room I stared at my reflection as I pulled a brush through my hair. I suddenly realised how rarely I looked at myself, and the shock of staring into my own eyes made me quite shaky for a moment. There I was, exactly the same as I was before. But of course not the same. How I relished those few seconds of peace in the morning before I woke up properly and remembered. Would today be the day they would come? It had been a week now, and as far as I knew Kenneth was still lying face down in his egg, hard-boiled and crisp, not burned toast. I wondered who would break the news and how we would all react.

“I know snow when I see it” Hornsey N8 | 11 February 2013 

Advertisements

Where am I going?

It was the morning after her 39th birthday and, other than being burdened with a slight hangover, it was indistinguishable from any other weekday. After three hits on the snooze button she got up, showered, dressed and stared blankly in the mirror while smearing on enough make-up to look at least vaguely human. A quick check through her handbag for the holy trinity of phone, purse and travelcard and she was done.

As she’d edged her way onto the train she was still glazed over with the remnants of sleep like everyone else, standing close to the door and crushed on both sides by men in overcoats pressing hard-edged briefcases against her legs. It was only as the doors closed and the crush eased a little that the thought popped up. This wasn’t the first time – every now and then it would present itself to her out of nowhere, a bit like a schoolyard dare. It was usually nothing more than a five-minute daydream between stops, an idle promise to herself she wouldn’t keep. But today it felt abruptly real and as she mulled it over in her head it was with a much greater sense of purpose than before. There were good reasons not to do it, really good ones. She piled them up in her head like bricks, one on top of the other, stuck together with a mortar of common sense. They looked solid.

When she arrived at her usual stop she’d stayed where she was and, stuck fast with a heady mixture of fear and excitement, had unconsciously held her breath until it was too late to get off. The beeping as the doors started to close was almost lyrical, sounding a brusque salute to the beginning of a new journey. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t turn around – she could get off at the next stop, or the one after, or the one after that and carry on as if nothing had happened. But something had changed, although it was impossible to define exactly what that was. As the doors crunched together and the train moved off, the breath she’d been holding came out suddenly as a long sigh, prompting the man opposite to peer at her over the top of his paper. She turned away and watched as London sped by outside, her anonymous reflection in the glass bidding the city a silent farewell.

Of course running away wasn’t the grown up thing to do. It was the sort of thing you did as a child with a lopsided jam sandwich and a shiny red apple in your satchel, with no intention of going further than the garden shed. But this didn’t feel wrong at all. In fact, the further from London she travelled and the more unfamiliar the scenery became, the better it felt.

She spent the next eight hours moving from train to train as the mood took her, with no clear idea of a destination until they stopped somewhere near the coast and something told her she’d gone far enough. The unremarkable station platform she found herself on was speckled with smudged fingerprints of spring blossom from the trees above it. She paused for a moment next to a rusty green bench to gather her thoughts. A whistle blew somewhere behind her and the train creaked slowly back into life. She stood and watched until it got smaller and smaller and finally disappeared. If this was a film, she thought, the sun would come out right about now. She looked up expectantly but no, the sky was wearing the same disapproving grey scowl it had been watching her with since she left home.

In her handbag she felt her phone vibrate as it had been doing on and off all day. A sudden wave of shock hit her like a punch and made her stagger slightly as stared down the now empty track. She’d done it. So what now? As she turned back towards the station entrance, she realised there was a man standing behind her dressed in a blue uniform and cap that had seen better days, clutching a shiny silver whistle. He peered at her warily through wire-rimmed spectacles.

“Do you know where you’re going, madam?”

She smiled at him. The human contact, slight as it was, had revived her nerve and despite the anxiety gnawing at her belly, an unfamiliar sensation was starting to overwhelm her. She thought suddenly of a suicidal man she had seen climbing over the side of one of London’s high Victorian bridges several years ago as she rode underneath on a bus. He’d jumped just after they passed by, although she seemed to be the only passenger who had noticed. What had bothered her most then, and what she remembered now, was the look on his face – he was grinning. It had troubled her for a long time afterwards, but finally Alice understood. It was relief.

Throwing her bag over her shoulder she answered, “I need a cheap B&B, somewhere local. And a toothbrush”.

 

[“Where am I going?” 144 bus 22 April 2014]

It might never happen

Jane shifted her weight and gingerly tugged her left shoe away from the carpet so she could slip her foot out. She could feel the blood rushing back to her toes and the throbbing of the burning pain underneath that she knew would still be there tomorrow morning. Raising her foot had helped but it was just a temporary reprieve, and she crammed her toes back into the cheap black stiletto then repeated the whole manoeuvre to try to ease the pain in her other foot. Each time she had to pull quite hard to raise her shoe from the sticky carpet. Every seat around the edge of the club was taken up by equally sorry looking women, either openly rubbing their feet and grimacing or smiling expectantly through the pain in the hope of one last dance before the lights came on.

Staring through the gloom to the writhing mass on the dancefloor, Jane could see Amy almost bent double as a tall boy wearing a leather jacket, and undoubtedly sweating profusely underneath, stuck his tongue right down her throat while his hand clutched ineptly at her backside. Not far away from Amy was Elaine who wasn’t so much dancing as leaning on a stocky, beer-bellied skinhead in a sweaty t-shirt who was holding her up with one arm as the other clutched a smeared pint glass, some of which he was drinking and some of which was spilling down Elaine’s new Topshop dress. She’d be cross about that in the morning. Jane had to search around a bit for Chrissie, but there she was in the corner, finally entangled with the smart, handsome man she’d had her eye on for the last few weeks and doing thumbs up signs behind his back at the other girls. Draining the last few drops of vodka from her glass, Jane reached across a man with beer stains – or worse – down the front of his shirt to add it to the rest of the empties on a soggy looking table.

As they’d grown older, the glue that had held the four girls together through school was slowly dissolving. They kept up the tradition of going out on a Saturday night, which had begun long before they were 18, but once one of them snagged a boyfriend she would disappear from sight for a bit until she reappeared, swollen eyed and cursing, and they had to take her out and tell her how he was a shit and they’d never liked him, then feed her vodka until she was too drunk to care. The pattern had been repeated endlessly. The only constant was Jane, whose romantic endeavours were few and far between meaning she could always be relied on for a night out with whoever was on the boyfriend wagon and needed a partner in crime in order to help her climb back off it.

Saturday nights would begin with a bus ride into town where they’d share a bottle of sweet white wine to ensure they would be well past tipsy before they reached the city centre. Then they’d trail from bar to bar, each one fuller than the last, squeezing themselves past bored looking bouncers and being jostled by vaguely familiar faces while one of them pushed their way to the bar. By the time they got back to the corner they’d stashed themselves in, most of the drink had been jostled out so it didn’t take long to down them and move on.

Eventually they’d head for a nightclub, usually the same one each week where they could be fairly sure of seeing whoever they’d had an eye on last week. Then it would be every girl for herself as they downed more drink and loitered around the dancefloor, waiting for their favourite songs to come on then throwing their drinks down on the nearest table and flinging themselves into the crowd. The moment when the music stopped pumping out disco classics and the slow songs came on always filled Jane with dread. It was the same every week – the girls would be dragged off to the dancefloor one by one by a succession of drunken sweaty men that they’d been flirting with all night, while she would be left on her own. It was always the same, no matter how optimistically she made eye contact with anyone that looked half decent. Just once she’d like to be manhandled across the slippery dancefloor and groped inexpertly to a Lionel Ritchie record.

With a last glance at the huddled dancers, Jane shuffled over to the cloakroom queue to pick up their coats. She didn’t mind, really. It gave her something to do to avoid lurking about like a loser and it saved a bit of time when the club kicked out and minicabs were hard to come by. The ancient blonde behind the counter had lipstick on her teeth and had severely bleached hair that showed three inches of grey at the roots. She grabbed the tickets from Jane and disappeared into the gloom with a smirk.

The queue hadn’t really been long enough tonight to kill much time, so now Jane had to shuffle back towards the dancefloor weighed down with four winter coats and three damp umbrellas as well as a selection of scarves that were trailing forlornly out of coatsleeves. As she looked around for somewhere inconspicuous to stand, something unpleasantly greasy dripped on her head from the ceiling and a slow trickle ran down her face. A ginger haired man with his shirt sleeves rolled up and a tie undone around his spotty neck leaned right up to her ear and shouted ‘Cheer up love, it might never happen!’ Then staggered off guffawing, tripping over a loose patch of carpet as he went. Jane cringed. Surely there was no sadder sight than a lone girl standing at the edge of a dancefloor, clutching an armful of coats while a tear ran down her face. Argh.

Thankfully the music came to an abrupt end and the dark glamour of the club was shocked away by fluorescent striplights. Nobody ever wanted to see this place in anything but total darkness, so there was a rush for the door and Jane was jostled by a succession of drunken couples barging past her on their way out. She pressed closer to the wall as the club slowly emptied. Chrissie was first back and tugged her coat from the pile on Jane’s arm.

‘Thanks hun, you’re a star. We’re going to get going, but I’ll see you in the cab queue. This is Eddie. Say hello Eddie…’

But Eddie was too busy peering town Chrissie’s top to say much and Chrissie shrugged and dragged him towards the door, giving Jane one last thumbs up behind Eddie’s back as she went.

Jane fixed the smile back on her face as Amy appeared and grabbed her jacket.

‘Cheers m’dear! We’re just going for some chips, see you in the queue.’

And she was gone. Jane couldn’t see Elaine anywhere although the dancefloor was empty now and the bouncers were starting to move people towards the exit. There was only one place she could be really. Jane risked a telling off and pushed open the door of the ladies toilets. There was one girl at the far end vomiting into an already overflowing sink, and once cubicle with a locked door.

‘Elaine?’ shouted Jane ‘Is that you? Are you ok?’

She could hear muted giggles from behind the door. Then a click as the lock was pulled and a hand reached out.

‘Have you got me coat? I’ve been a bit sicky but Andy is helping me get better.’ More giggles.

Jane thrust the expensive mac into the waving hand. ‘Are you sure you’re ok? Do you want me to wait?’

‘Nooooooo I’m super fine. Suuuuper fine. See you in the queue in a bit.’

Jane looked around at the vomiting girl in the corner who was trying to drink out of a tap and trailing her hair in the filthy sink. Time to leave. There’d be an hour or so to wait for a cab as it was, maybe she’d meet up with the other two in the chippy.

Jane picked her way carefully through the cobbled street up to the main road, trying to look but not stare at the rutting couples she passed on the way, trying to work out if they were Chrissie or Amy. There was no sign of either of them in the chip shop queue which reached out almost to the but Jane was too cold to wait in the taxi line without something to warm her hands on, so she joined the end, behind a group of older men who were clearly hammered. They were pushing and shoving each other and shouting at the girl behind the counter, who had probably heard much worse before and was steadfastly ignoring them.

‘I’ve got a sausage you can have if you’re running short darlin.’

‘They don’t do chipolatas here do they? She’d be better off with my Cumberland monster, you’ll never fit that in a bap, mind.’

‘Here – what d’you think of it love? Want a look?’

Jane looked up. Of course they were talking to her. The shortest one, who didn’t have a lot of hair and had for some reason permed the few strands he had left, was waggling his crotch at her, fingers clutching at his fly.

‘Didn’t you pull tonight love? I don’t mind giving you a bit if you’re desperate like,’ he smirked.

The older looking one wearing a dirty looking vest gave him a shove. ‘Shut up divvy, she’d rather have a bite of my hot dog wouldn’t you gorgeous.’

Rolling her eyes in what she hoped was a non-aggressive way, Jane made the fatal mistake of answering back with a tense ‘No thank you very much.’

‘Oooooooh, listen to her – it’s facking Pippa Middleton. Think ya vary maaaach,’ the short one sneered.

His mate grinned. ‘I’d give Pippa Middleton a bite of mine any time. Lovely arse.’

‘Snobby cow though, bit like this one. She can feck off and all.’

‘She’s in a mood cos she hasn’t pulled.’

“Who, Pippa Piddleton?”

‘No, this tart behind us. No wonder, with a face like that.’

‘Nice arse though.’

‘Who, Pippa Middleton?’

‘I’d bang it. Don’t say you wouldn’t. Face like a cow’s bum though, you’d have to do her from behind.’

Jane had lost track of whether they were insulting her or not now, but her face was burning red and the lure of chips suddenly wasn’t as strong. As she walked out of the door, she could hear them calling behind her in fake posho voices. She hurried away.

The taxi queue was long, and there was no sign of any of the girls closer to the front, so Jane joined the end and pulled her coat around her to try and warm up a bit. All around her were drunk people either snogging or eating chips, she couldn’t decide which she wanted more at that precise moment. Actually what she’d really like is one of those foot baths. Or a combination of all three, a snog while sitting with her feet in a foot bath and a plate of chips on the side. Looking around, it seemed like everyone had paired off except her – maybe nobody had really noticed, but she felt very conspicuous standing on her own. Taxis were few and far between, it didn’t look like she could escape any time soon either. She checked her phone, but no messages from either of the girls. She could imagine what was keeping them both busy.

She was gazing aimlessly into the distance when someone thrust a bag of chips in her face.

‘Want one? Sorry about my dad and Billy, they shouldn’t be let out on their own really.’

It was the third man from the chippy, who had been silent while the other two mouthed off. He was younger than them, not bad looking really. And he had chips. Jane smiled and took one.

‘Thanks.’ She smiled. ‘I didn’t mind really, I just got fed up of waiting.’

‘On your own then? I can’t believe that, you’re lovely.’

Jane blushed again, hoping he couldn’t tell in the dark.

‘Yeah, my mates are around but… you know. They’re meeting me here.’

‘I’m Joey. You want another chip?’

‘Jane.’ She reached in and took another ketchup-smeared chip from the paper. “Are you on your own too now?’

‘Yeah, those two have gone off to the casino. They won’t let them in though, not in that state. Fecking cold isn’t it.’

‘I’m freezing, I wish these cabs would hurry up. There’s only been two since I got here and they only took one person each. So annoying.’

‘Do you want a little cuddle to warm up?’

‘No!’ squeaked Jane, taking a step back from him in surprise. He laughed.

‘Sorry, can’t blame me for trying. No more chips for you then,’ Joey grabbed the packet away from her and turned his back in a pretend huff. She looked at him, and tried to think of a good reason for not having a little cuddle. Imagine if the girls rocked up and there she was, in the arms of a mysterious hunk. Hmm. Also, more chips.

‘Oh, go on then.’

‘Thought you were playing hard to get? I knew you’d give in. Here, have two chips if you like.’

But there was no opportunity for another chip, Joey’s arms snaked around her waist and pulled her towards him so she could smell his beery breath. His tongue was down her throat in an instant. Jane didn’t mind at all, he really was cute, and not a bad snogger either. The night had improved a lot in the last ten minutes – now all she needed was the foot bath. The couple behind gave them a nudge to move down a bit, then Joey went in for another kiss, and she responded enthusiastically, giving his bum a little squeeze in return for the mauling hers was getting.  He was very keen, a proper turn up for the books, she thought. At last, someone, some bloke, had paid her a bit of attention. And here she was snogging him! Jane let him slip a hand inside her coat and giggled.

She hardly noticed the car pull up alongside until Joey let go of her and shouted ‘Let me in, dickheads’. The car door swung open, nearly hitting Jane on the leg. She looked inside, it was the two idiots from the chippy. Joey winked at her and jumped in, shutting the door quickly. He leaned out of the window towards her waving something that she thought must be the rest of the chips. ‘See ya round,’ he shouted as the car screeched off.

It happened so quickly, it took a moment for Jane to catch her breath. That bastard, he was just waiting for his lift, she thought. It was all over so quickly she couldn’t quite believe it had happened at all. She turned back to the front of the queue and shivered and wiped her hand across her lips, which still tasted a bit of beer and chips. At least it had filled up a few minutes of waiting time, there weren’t so many people in front of her now. And she didn’t feel like quite so much of a loser any more. Still no sign of the girls though, what a shame – they’d never believe her. Well, not that he was so good looking. He had been cute at least, maybe she’d run into him again next week.

It took another half hour to reach the front of the queue, and a cab pulled in almost straight away. She was still on her own, which was annoying because there was nobody to share the fare with, but Jane almost didn’t care – in fact, it would have annoyed her more if they’d walked straight up to the front after she’d been stood there for the best part of an hour. At least she had what was left of that night’s kitty to pay the taxi from – quite a lot if she remembered rightly, they’d managed to get most of their drinks bought for them one way or another. She slipped her throbbing feet out of her shoes at last and grinned to herself. She’d got a snog and she was heading home for toast, things weren’t so bad after all.

The driver wasn’t very chatty, thankfully, and Jane was glad to pull up outside her flat even if it meant squeezing her feet back into those shoes. She pulled her handbag onto her lap from where she’d slung it on the seat and a shiver ran through her as she realised the zip was wide open. She must have opened it at the chip shop and forgotten to shut it again after she legged it. How stupid, she was usually more careful, you had to watch out these days, there were pickpockets all over the place. She reached inside, holding her breath. Her phone was still tucked into the side pocket, and the few bits of make up she’d brought out were still in the bottom. And her keys were rattling in there somewhere. But there was no purse. Not in her bag, not on the seat beside her, not on the floor.

Suddenly she realised what it was that Joey, or whatever his real name was, had been waving to her through the car window. Leaning forward, and taking a deep breath, she slid open the glass panel between her and the driver. ‘I’ve got a bit of a problem,’ she began.

[Overheard in Morrisons Wood Green 3 January 5pm]

Never mind

“I’m going to York Uni” Elie screamed as the door slammed shut behind her. Beth could hear sobbing as her lanky teenage daughter stomped off up the road, leaving a shelf of shivering plates behind her. That shelf should have been fixed long ago, thought Beth as she stared at the shadowy outline of her daughter disappearing down the path. And that’s not helping – she raised her eyes to the ceiling which was almost pulsating with the furious banging from their extremely sensitive upstairs neighbour. She thumped when the radio was on, when the telly was on, when anyone raised a voice, when the washing machine reached spin and of course when the door slammed. One day not only will the plates descend to the floor, but that infuriating woman would come crashing through behind them clad only in the giant pants she infrequently hung on the washing line. Beth had the fury. She took a deep breath and stalked into the kitchen.

Ellie had probably stomped off to her best friend Michelle’s house round the corner – she would stay there moaning until she was sure her parents were in bed then skulk home in the dark. Probably drunk. That’s teenagers for you, thought Beth as she dangled a camomile teabag into a chunky mug of hot water. York. That was a long way away, weekend visits would be few and far between once she got there. Beth’s heart sank. She had done all she could to persuade Ellie to stay in London: she could save on the rent, have her washing done, help herself to cupboards full of food – all the home comforts that she wouldn’t get in a hall of residence. She’d tried and tried to convince her, almost begging today when the confirmation forms came in the post. Ellie had found them stuffed in the recycling bin so the mother of all rows had begun, which only ended when the sobbing teenager left the house.

The house was always silent without Ellie in it. Sometimes Beth put the telly on just to hear the sound of another human being. As she dropped the dripping teabag in the bin, she watched two birds fighting over a piece of this morning’s bacon rind in the back garden. This was going to be it then, slow quiet days watching the local wildlife and awkwardly silent evenings in front of the telly with Colin picking meat out of his teeth and frowning over a crossword. It would stop her upstairs banging so much mind you, always look on the bright side.

Beth picked up her mug and wandered into the lounge. There were all sorts of tatty looking magazines spread across the coffee table – she picked one up and flicked through it. Pictures of people she didn’t recognise, all looking very pleased with themselves and wearing expensive looking but hideous clothes. She scowled – when she was young she’d looked up to movie stars and opera singers. People with talent. These days anyone capable of painting themselves orange and having ridiculous sized bosoms stuck on them seemed to be an object of adoration. Even so, she found herself still reading about Kim Kardashian and her fellow nobodies half an hour later and wondering how long their new romances would last. Truth be told, she’d miss the gossip mags when Ellie left, she’d never buy them for herself. Waste of money.

The thought of the coffee table being permanently free of clutter set her off again, and her eyes filled up. She’d known there would come a point when Ellie left home. Of course she had, she’d just hoped it would be as late as possible. Not Ronnie Corbett in Sorry late, but she had thought there was still plenty of time. It had never really occurred to her that Ellie would go away to university, if she was honest she had imagined her only child finally leaving home on her wedding day, clad in a billowing gown and on the arm of her father. Now Ellie would probably end up living in sin first with a hairy student then running off to India to get married on an elephant.

None of her attempts to keep Ellie home had worked – she had set her heart on York straight away and was already stockpiling essential supplies in a grocery box in the corner of her bedroom. The sight of its random contents was enough to break Beth’s heart – two chipped mugs from the back of the cupboard (noticeably not the World’s Best Daughter one that had been a Christmas present last year), a mismatched knife and fork that had come from the camping tin, some assorted cleaning supplies and the Scooby Doo plate she’d had as a toddler. Beth wanted to be supportive, to help with the packing, buy her some lovely new things to start her adventures with. But she couldn’t bring herself to do anything other than pretend it wasn’t happening.

She jumped up, spilling tea on her skirt as the sound of the front gate clanging gave her a bit of hope that Ellie was back. But no, it was another bloody pizza leaflet. She scrunched it up and threw it in the rubbish bin in the kitchen, then fished it out and put it in the recycling box. Being angry is no excuse for not saving the planet, she thought. Colin would be home soon, only two of them for dinner tonight – she’d root something out of the freezer. He would eat pretty much anything she put in front of him without comment then sit back on the sofa with the paper until something took his fancy on telly.

Colin had never been much of a chatter – she’d found it quite attractive about him when they’d first met, he was the epitome of the strong silent type she’d always been drawn to. These days she wondered whether that was because she never had much to say herself, she always felt shy in social groups and had a very limited repertoire of small talk that she would use up quickly before skulking in a corner until she could escape. Their early dates were usually at the cinema so they could exchange polite chit chat before they went in, then discuss the film afterwards. Once they ran out of things to say they would just neck until one of them got bored and went home. It never really occurred to her how this would pan out in married life, when they were closed in together with only the silence for company. Obviously it hadn’t occurred to Colin either, and before she knew it they were heading off on a honeymoon that both of them were secretly dreading.

In 21 years of marriage, she still wasn’t much wiser about the inner workings of his mind. If she asked what he fancied for dinner Colin would shrug his shoulders and say he didn’t mind. If they were planning a holiday he told her didn’t mind where they went. If he needed new clothes he would look at his tatty jeans and say he didn’t mind what she bought him. You get the gist. Colin had never minded anything. Even when Beth breathlessly told him the doctor had confirmed she was pregnant, his initial excitement soon faded and he showed no interest in the colour of the nursery, or indeed the tricky business of choosing a name for their offspring. She’d eventually given up trying to discuss it with him and called her Eleanor after her grandmother who had died a few months before Beth got pregnant. One baby had been enough, neither of them discussed having more children, she had just gone back on the pill and stayed there. For once it was Beth that didn’t mind, Ellie was enough – she doted on her.

Twenty-one years of not minding, of retreating behind the paper or staring blank-eyed at the tv – that was her marriage. It had become something of a torture – Beth often thought of women who were beaten and abused by their partners and felt almost jealous. They had bruises they could run away with, broken bones they could be rescued from. What did she have? A frown line and permanently clenched fists. The last time Colin had agreed with anything outright was on their wedding day when – hallelujah – he said ‘I do’ surprisingly vocally. How he managed to get it out without following it up with ‘well I don’t really mind’ was a constant mystery. Her mum often referred to him as Mavis from Coronation Street which just about summed him up. That joke had worn a bit thin now, mind you.

Ellie had been the one salvation for both of them, her incessant chatter kept the house alive and whenever the silence got too much it was easy to remember something funny she’d done or witter on about something from school. Ellie had been a sticking plaster over the problem for 17 years. But she was about to leave, and the gaping hole of Beth’s marriage would be revealed.

The front gate clanged again, this time it was Colin. Beth stood up, took a deep breath and greeted him in the hall. ‘Ellie’s gone off in a huff so it’s just you and me for dinner. I’ve had mine actually, but I’ll heat yours up now. Spag bol.’ and without waiting for a response, she headed for the kitchen. There was no point setting the table so she set up a knife and fork on a tray and added the carton of parmesan cheese that seemed to have been in the cupboard forever. When she heard Colin coming out of the shower she pressed the button on the microwave and pulled a beer out of the fridge. He always had a yogurt for pudding, so she yanked open the fridge and chose a strawberry one – he was a man of simple tastes, yogurt-wise. She peeled the top off slowly and licked it clean.

The sound of Anne Robertson’s voice floated from the lounge, Colin was a big fan of Watchdog. Beth stalked in and picked up the tray with its empty yogurt pot and slotted them both into the dishwasher. As she clattered the door closed, Beth realised she’d left the bottle on the worktop. Careless. A small glass bottle that had once held vanilla essence was sat on the draining board – the label was still there, but she’d put the lid from the red food colouring on it so that she wouldn’t confuse it with the real thing. Ellie never baked so there was no chance of her using either of them. Beth had been putting a spoonful in Colin’s yogurt for a few weeks now, he was starting to complain a bit about odd pains so it seemed to be working. She’d got the idea from one of those crime programmes on afternoon telly and it had seemed almost too easy to find the anti-freeze bottle in the car and transfer a bit over. It was summer now, so he wouldn’t notice any had gone until – well until it was too late.

Screwing the top back on, Beth put the bottle high in the cupboard and scrubbed her hands clean. Ellie might be leaving her, but somewhere, just out of reach for the moment, but somewhere in the air was the scent of freedom.

[Original quote: “I’m going to York Uni” Hornsey, London 17 July 4.20pm]

Lamb chops tomorrow

“Here you go, son. Sausage, beans and mash.”

Andrew took his plate and placed it carefully on the scuffed Royal Wedding place mat in front of him. William and Kate were now hidden behind two mounds of harshly mashed King Edwards (oh the irony), two pork sausages that had probably as much pork in as Sister Mary from the convent on the high street and a splosh of baked beans that by the water content of the sauce had come in a blue stripy tin rather than one with a number 57 on the side. His favourite? Hardly. It had been a favourite of his school days to be fair, every Tuesday night he’d insist on having it in front of him ready in time for the first Grange Hill of the week so he could copy the sausage waving moment in the opening credits. But that was 30 years ago now, a bit more than that if he was honest. And still every Tuesday, sausage, beans and mash.

Mum had a limited repertoire when it came to dinners: Monday: leftovers from Sunday roast. Wednesday: lamp chops, peas and carrots and boiled potatoes. Thursday: cottage pie with the left over veg from Wednesday. Friday: if he didn’t go out straight from work, corned beef hash. Saturday: a treat of fish and chips eaten in the paper on the sofa. Then of course Sunday roast. That’s the way it was, and had been ever since he could remember – his mother never deviated from her menu, it was something his father had approved sometime back in the day because he liked to know what to expect when he returned from a hard day at the office. The one time his mother had gone a bit rogue and cooked spaghetti bolognese from a recipe in the Daily Mail it had been silently pushed away and was replaced speedily with a lamp chop as though it had never happened.

“Mum?”

“Hold on a moment Andrew, I’m just peeling the potatoes for tomorrow. Did I forget your brown sauce?” She never sat down to dinner with him in the evenings, she would have long finished hers by the time they got home, keeping his and dad’s warm under a yellowing pyrex glass lid in the oven. They only ate together at weekends, Mum was always too busy getting tomorrow night’s dinner ready to sit down with them, Andrew was always a bit jealous that she would get to have hers before the gravy crisped up round the edges and the vegetables merged into one unappetising pile of mush.

“No, it’s here.”

“I got you the fruity one, your dad never used to like it but I know you do.”

“Thanks mum.” Andrew shouted back. He looked at the bottle of sauce in front of him and wondered what made it so fruity. As he sliced into one of the limp sausages and watched it deflate she appeared at the kitchen door, drying her hands on a Duchess of York tea towel.

“What did you want love?”

Andrew looked at his mum. Her thin grey hair was pulled back in a ramshackle bun, fixed with giant hair grips which stuck out at random points like spines. She never bothered much with make up these days, unless there was company when she’d pull out one of the three ancient lipsticks that lurked in the bathroom cabinet and paint some wobbly lips on, smiling at herself as she tried not to get too much on her teeth. The dress she was wearing had seen better days, it was one of the ones she appeared in regularly until the stains on the front got too noticeable then it would be dumped into the tatty wicker  basket in the bathroom and replaced with another almost identical one. Andrew never looked inside her wardrobe but he imagined it full of these flowery monstrosities, all jostling for attention, rubbing against each other every time the door was opened and closed, firing angry bursts of static electricity into the darkness.

Since his dad had died nothing much had changed. In the old days you’d know he was home from work from the way mum shushed cautiously if Andrew was playing car crashes a bit too loudly, or shooting Red Indians with too much vigour. Dad would either be poker straight behind his newspaper in the kitchen waiting for dinner or in his armchair quietly frowning at a news bulletin. Andrew had grown up depending on mum for attention but she rarely offered it when his father was around, he’d scold her for being too soft and warn her that her son would grow up to be, well a word Andrew wouldn’t use these days. Unless he was referring to a footstool.

“Oh, nothing really. I just wondered if we could try spag bol one night. Spaghetti bolognese, you know, it’s Italian. Might make a nice change.”

“Oh Andrew, you know your father wouldn’t like it. Don’t be a fusspot now, eat your sausage. Do you want me to bring the arctic roll out now so it’ll thaw a bit?”

Andrew’s shoulders sagged. His dad might have gone but his spirit was still here at the dining table, frowning on strangeness and spreading a thick layer of butter on his bread as if he was building a brick wall to keep out any galloping gourmets that might be in the vicinity. Thing was, he knew mum was interested in that ‘foreign muck’ dad hated – she kept a stack of brightly spined cookery books by her bed which he knew she thumbed through at night, marking pages she liked with torn bits of a cornflake box. There were books by all the famous tv cooks, she’d sit glued to their programmes in the evening now she had control of the remote control, and would switch from one to the other religiously. The one with the swearing, the one with the nice young man with a beard who wasn’t married yet, the one with the big bosomed lady who was often behaving lewdly with her sauces and her favourite, the one who was always doing good things in schools but didn’t talk properly. She’d collected their books even when dad was here, though they were hidden under the corners of the bed, curtained by the threadbare embroidered bedspread that was an ancient wedding present. He certainly wouldn’t have approved, a book was only a book to him if it was about spies or the war. And preferably both. She must have bought them herself at first, though now Andrew would present her with a new one on special occasions which she would put to one side until she could escape to bed with her glasses and a plumped up pillow.

“I’m putting the telly on now love, there’s probably nothing on though.” Mum wiped the table with one hand as she swept up his dirty plate with the other. He heard the clatter as she dropped it in the sink – it was always the man’s job to wash up, that had never changed either. By man’s job, it meant Andrew’s. His dad never helped out, although he would surface occasionally brandishing a tea towel and making a big deal out of drying a couple of teacups and a spoon. Neither of them were particularly welcome in the kitchen and apart from occasionally sneaking in to get a garibaldi from the Princess Diana biscuit barrel, Andrew didn’t have much of an idea what was lurking in the back of the cupboards. There was a pantry full of stacks of tins of essential supplies – beans, tinned peas and carrots, jars of pickles and assorted ancient looking and half used packets of flour, salt and sugar. When he was small he would often lurk in here when dad was on a rampage of one sort or another, but he hadn’t looked inside for years.

Andrew wasn’t sure what made him open the pantry door but he was suddenly nostalgic for the hidey hole of his childhood. At first it just looked the same as ever, shelves of tins and packets, all looking a bit faded and half used, some of the tins had lost their labels and had hand written stickers on them with thing like ‘carrots?’ ‘sounds mushy’ and ‘beans’ written on in his mum’s spidery hand. There was a shelf of jars – jam, pickles, sauces, all half used, and the large tins he remembered from his childhood with ‘bread’ or ‘flour’ printed on the side. The sort of thing that people go mad for these days for their retro kitchens. He lifted the heavy lid of the bread bin and peered in. Inside wasn’t the loaf of medium sliced white bread he’d been expecting to see, not at all. Andrew quickly put the lid back and crept to the door of the kitchen to make sure mum was still safely in front of the telly. He could hear someone talking about blending something unintelligible with something else, so reckoned the coast was clear for a bit longer.

Back in the pantry Andrew took a proper look inside the bread bin. It was full to the brim with packets of pasta, all sorts of shapes and sizes: spaghetti, tortellini, lasagne, penne, rigatoni – you name it. All the bags had been opened and used, some of them were nearly empty and there were loose broken pieces in the bottom that had clearly been there for some time. He put the lid back on and opened the flour tin behind it. This one was full of exotically named herbs and spices, again all open and half used. Oregano, thyme, paprika, cardamom pods, cinnamon, mingled with glistening packets of dried mushrooms and peppers. The sugar and salt pots hid even more treasures, vanilla pods, all sorts of fancily named nuts (nothing like the unexciting nut and raisin selection that would be handed round churlishly at Christmas). Finally, inside the unused coffee percolator with a chipped lid that had been a present from Auntie Min some years back and never used, he found a tatty grease-stained notebook with ‘private’ printed neatly on the cover.

The sound of adverts blaring from the telly stopped him looking inside and Andrew quickly replaced the notebook and was back in the kitchen with a soapy dishcloth in his hand before his mum appeared.

“You’re taking your time with the washing up tonight, your arctic roll has gone all melty. Shall I fetch you a new bit?”

“No need mum, I didn’t really fancy it tonight to be honest. Sorry.”

“You know I hate waste, I’ll stick it out for the birds tomorrow. Will you make me a cuppa? I think there’s something on BBC2 about the economy I want to see.”

Economy my arse, thought Andrew. It’s time for that well endowed French lady with the lipstick. He quickly boiled the kettle and popped a teabag into a Charles & Camilla wedding mug with a splosh of milk. As he took it through to the lounge his mother plumped the cushion behind her and looked a bit guilty.”I don’t know what this is,” she said waving towards the tv. “It’s not David Dimbleby after all. I’ll keep it on though, it’s company while I’m doing my crossword”.

Andrew saw the newspaper neatly folded on her knee, with some scribbled attempts at filling in the puzzle and some scrawled words round the edge that he couldn’t quite read but one of them looked a bit like sweetbreads. “Am just going to sit in the kitchen and do some work if that’s ok mum, I’ve got a presentation to give to the finance team tomorrow. Will you be ok on your own?”

“Ooh yes, don’t worry about me, you must get your work done. There’s probably some other rubbish on after this to keep me company.”

Andrew fished the book back out of the percolator. The pages were greasy and torn, and some were stuck together. But it was a revelation. His mum had filled it with all sorts of delicious sounding recipes. As he flicked through, the sausage, mash and beans lying sadly in his belly, he found scribbled lists of ingredients with notes like ‘too much garlic’ and ‘needs a lot of pepper’ written in the margins. The recipes were all carefully transcribed from her cookbooks by the look of it – with titles like Nigella’s chorizo risotto and Jamie’s spicy meatballs underlined at the top. There seemed to be a system for marking too, with each one given one, two or three splodgy asterisks at the top of the page and a date – the earliest, Delia’s spaghetti bolognese dating back to 1982.

So this was why his mother never ate with them, she was busy eating with her friends – Gordon, Nigel, Jamie and the rest of them. All this time, when dad had been moaning about foreign muck and chewing solemnly on a lamb chop, sucking out the marrow with a slurp and gnawing on the bone like a caveman, mum was full of exotic concoctions that she shovelled away before he came stomping through the front door. Andrew thought of the endless plates of miserable dinners she’d laid in front of them, night after night, week after week, year after year. Sullen grey meals that only tasted of anything after a liberal dose of red or brown sauce. He’d got used to it, it was just how things were. But the thought of his mum sitting down each evening to – well, to pumpkin risotto and garlic chicken, and to lasagne and steak au poivre… STEAK! It was too much. He slammed the notebook shut, sending up a tiny puff of flour. Time to tell her the secret was out.

Andrew tried to work out what his dad would have said. He had always been a bitter man. He resented his job as an accountant for a small firm of builders, where he’d worked for 30 years until he died. They never appreciated him, or paid him enough for what he had to put up with, apparently. The heart attack had come out of the blue, but Andrew suspected a life spent in bitterness and anger was to blame – dad was always angry at someone, the government, bus drivers, the neighbours, shop assistants, bin men… whoever he came across in the course of a normal day could be almost guaranteed to cause him grief for the smallest of reasons. Oh, and any member of the Royal family that wasn’t the Queen. He saved the biggest furies for his own family though, shouting if the house was untidy, the newspaper was creased, his shirt wasn’t pressed properly or he found something frivolous in the biscuit tin like chocolate digestives instead of plain ones. Mum was constantly on high alert, trying to anticipate the next rage and deflecting it before it landed.

Andrew pictured his father’s red face after a rant and then thought of his mother, a whole life of trying to become invisible and second guess a man who barely acknowledged her unless she did something wrong. She’d never been allowed to work, other than a brief stint in Oxfam which ended when she took one of dad’s old suits in as a donation and dad recognised it in the shop window. Apparently there was still plenty of wear in it, although Andrew couldn’t imagine anyone going out in public in those wide lapels and 32 inch flares to anywhere except a fancy dress party. To prove them both wrong, his father demanded it was returned then wore it to work the following week. He looked like he’d walked straight out of George and Mildred as he left the house that morning, you could only imagine what his colleagues made of it. His mum had been too embarrassed to ever go back to the shop, and the next time Andrew saw the suit was at the funeral home – mum had given it to them to bury him in. “It’s what he would have wanted”, she said, when the undertaker held it up with a look of horror and asked if she was sure that was the right one.

Andrew thought of all the nights she’d sat silently in front of the television watching the news, knowing all the time that Delia was whipping up something delicious on the other side. The nights she’d wait until he dropped off to sleep before reaching under her side of the bed for Jamie’s newest book and her torn off bits of cereal packet. He thought of the torturous holidays spent in damp caravans around England and Wales, because a hotel would be wasteful. And of the Christmas presents that were useful rather than desirable, school shoes for Andrew and a hoover for mum. It had been no life for either of them.

Andrew had grown up and gone to work, and though he was still living at home, the freedom to do his own thing all day and the chicken tikka sandwiches he’d treat himself to for lunch had been a blissful respite from home. He turned the recipe book over in his hands and then gently replaced it in the percolator. So this had been mum’s escape. As he sat back at the kitchen table and opened his laptop, she poked her head through the kitchen door.

“Am going up early tonight, love, see you in the morning.”

“Night mum. I’ll put the dishes away when they’re dry.”

“Don’t be soft, I’ll only have to get them out again. Lamb chops tomorrow”

“Yes, lamb chops tomorrow.”

[ORIGINAL QUOTE: “Sausage, beans and mash” Crouch End Broadway | 14 May 2012 | 2.10pm]

My brother’s best friend

I married my brother’s best friend. Ernie, that’s short for Ernest. Well of course it is. Stan was five years older than me, he used to bring Ernie round on a Friday for tea and he’d wink at me across the table when he thought nobody was looking. Mother caught him once and took me into the front parlour the next day to tell me about the dreadful thing women had to endure. The way she described it I thought something awful would happen to my handbag in a cellar on my wedding night. It was a while before I realised what she meant by ‘down below’ and ‘pocketbook’. They aren’t shy talking about it these days I see, Philip Schofield had someone’s dangly part waving about on This Morning not long ago. I turned it off. There’s some things you don’t want to see while you’re having elevenses. Even without your glasses on.

Stan was a bit put out when we told him me and Ernie were engaged, he thought he’d lost his best friend to a stupid girl and huffed around the house a lot while I was making arrangements. He got over it when Ernie asked him to be best man though and they still got together every Friday for a pint and a chat about man things. Stan died in the war, he was only 20. So Ernie had to go for his pint on his own after that. Ernie lasted a lot longer, he was 84 when the asthma finally did for him. I’ve been here on my own since then. That’s why he never went to war, the asthma. Poor man, he used to get people shouting at him in the street, giving him white feathers, you know. They thought he was too scared to do his duty but it wasn’t that at all. You can’t say that to everyone though can you, “I’ve got asthma”. Nobody believes you unless you’re wheezing away like a pair of bellows. Ernie wasn’t a conchie like George from the bakery, he ended up in Wormwood Scrubs for a bit because of it, his poor wife was beside herself. They had their window put through four times until she got my Ernie to board it up.

Ernie, poor thing, he would have done anything to be out there with his mates, he never got over it – especially after Stan died. But I was glad, I wouldn’t admit it at the time but I’d lost my brother, that was enough. Ernie was a signalman on the railway, I kept telling him it was still an important job, though he never saw it like that. Now I’m here on my own. George is still around too, I see him sometimes at the library – I say hello, well rude not too isn’t it. But nobody around here forgot what he did. He’s got a hat with that peace logo thingy on so I guess he’s still one of them.

Joyce usually comes over on a Sunday, she’s my daughter. She never stays long but with that house full you can’t blame her – three kids she’s got as well as that big kid of a husband.  I never wanted her to marry Terry, you could tell he was a bad one. Mrs Davies up the road said he was hanging round with the teenagers in the park, reckons he was up to no good. Drugs, she said. I don’t know about that, but I do know that he hasn’t done an honest days work since we’ve known him. Ernie used to hate him, he wanted Joyce to marry a nice man who would look after her, set her on the right road. But instead she got a ‘big long streak of piss’, as he used to call him. He could be a bit of a potty mouth my Ernie – not like kids today mind you. That one from next door, I hear her shouting all sorts. Shocking it is. Joyce’s kids are no better, I don’t see them much though. They never say much, just sit there scuffing their heels on my sofa and playing with their phones.

I hope Joyce isn’t much longer. No point putting the chop under the grill until she’s been – she can get those peas down for me too. I don’t know who put them up there, must have been Ernie. They’ve been there a long time then, he’s been gone five years this Christmas. Ernie used to like peas. And carrots. Didn’t like any of those newfangled vegetables though, fancy stuff he used to call it. Broccoli, courgettes, that sort of thing – wouldn’t touch it. Funny. I like a bit of broccoli myself but I never buy it.

Joyce used to be a dinner lady at the school up the road, she would drop their leftovers in for me sometimes – nice bit of pie, fancy spaghetti, all sorts. But that time they found all those teabags in her handbag, they told her it was stealing. It was just a few, she said. But they sacked her straight off. She made a bit of a fuss, apparently – Mrs Edwards from number 56 heard about it from one of the parents. Terrible gossips they are. I’m sure it was just a misunderstanding, she said she only brought me things that were out of date so they wouldn’t be wasted. Mrs Edwards said she didn’t know why Joyce was always in such trouble when me and Ernie were such a respectable couple. It’s true, she was a tearaway as a child and it got worse as she got older. We couldn’t control her. Bad blood, Ernie said. Then he’d look at me with that sad look that he had. Bad blood, he’d say.

Joyce stole at school, just little things but it all mounted up. I’d find things in her schoolbag that I knew weren’t hers – lipstick from Woolworths, a scarf that I’d seen one of her teachers wearing on parents evening, a little red purse with a picture of Donny Osmond on it. We didn’t give her much pocket money in those days, so they weren’t things she could afford. As she got older there were other things – money would disappear from my purse, Ernie lost his father’s pocket watch, and once she came home with a policeman after she’d been caught trying to take a bottle of gin from the shop on the corner. I was so ashamed I never went in there again, even though it meant going twice as far to the supermarket on the big road.

Things got worse as she got older. Ernie always accusing her, me trying to protect her – though it was hard to defend some of the things she got up to. She’d be out all night without a word about where she was. She was never in school either so when it came to the exams she failed everything that she bothered to turn up for. And she had boyfriends that I would normally cross the street to avoid, boys with tattoos, boys on motorbikes, boys who helped themselves to whatever they could find in the fridge even if it meant me and Ernie going without milk for our breakfast. Bad blood, Ernie would say each time. I still find things missing now, after she’s been round. I don’t worry about it any more, it’ll all be hers when I go anyway.

We’d had to move as soon as Joyce arrived and I’d lost touch with all my friends, so there wasn’t anyone to talk to about baby things. We had to keep ourselves to ourselves. Ernie found it harder than me – he felt like he’d spent all his life being punished for that one thing. We both struggled, sucked the life out of us it did. I had nightmares for months at the beginning, I couldn’t answer the door in case it was a copper. I’d scan every newspaper for stories about it at the beginning, but it all went quiet after a couple of months. The first year was torture. Well, it is for all parents isn’t it. Sleepless nights, endless crying, not knowing if you were doing it right and having nobody to ask. I was too scared to even take her to the doctor.

I know Ernie thought he was doing the right thing, he just wanted me to be happy. We’d been trying for so long, but the doctor said there was something wrong with him and he’d never be a father. Then because of his asthma they wouldn’t let us adopt. Ernie tried to put a brave face on but he was as devastated as me. We never thought we wouldn’t have kids, I wanted a whole house full – we’d talked about nothing else after we first got wed. I had even started putting things in my bottom drawer for the baby. It was after he caught me crying over them that he got that look in his eye, and not long after that Joyce arrived.

I think it was knowing that it was his fault that made him do it. I tried not to think about her mother, how she must have felt when she saw the empty pram sat there. When Ernie turned up with her, all red faced and out of breath with Joyce wrapped up in his overcoat, crying fit to burst and wet through, I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t – at the time I just got on with it, she felt like mine from the first time I held her in my arms. We tried to give her a good life, we looked after her even when she was thieving from us. But as Ernie said, bad blood will out.

I still think about the mother, that blurry photograph of her in all the papers in a smart skirt suit, crying and holding a pink teddy bear. She was quite well to do, lived in the posh end of town in a big house, husband worked for a big factory on the edge of town – not on the floor, he was one of the bigwigs in the offices. They weren’t hard up for anything by the look of it. But I never stopped thinking about her and how she must be still have a little bit of hope tucked away somewhere. Always wondering if that child on the bus was hers, or maybe that one over there skipping with her friends. What had she grown up like? Maybe she’d got married and had her own children. You’d always imagine the best wouldn’t you. She’s lucky, never knowing that her daughter turned out to be a mean petty thief with a taste for wrong ‘uns.

Ernie blamed bad blood but I knew it wasn’t that, it was our punishment. Nobody gets away with that sort of thing, you get your come uppance one way or another. The guilt ate away at us both, slowly, not so you’d notice, but in small ways, like a nagging ache in your tooth – on her birthday (which wasn’t her real birthday of course, just one we thought was about right), when she asked about her grandparents, when she got pregnant and wanted to know whether I’d had such terrible morning sickness. Such a lot of things pricking at my conscience year after year. I wanted to tell her the truth, but how could I. In the end, after Ernie went, I wrote it all down in a letter to be opened after my death. I tried to explain, to apologise. It was hard to set it all down but I felt a bit better once it was done. I put it in my bottom drawer with my sentimental bits and pieces. Well I thought I did, I couldn’t see it when I was in there the other week looking for my post office book – couldn’t find that either. They’ve probably just fallen down the back. I’ll get Joyce to help me pull the drawer out when she gets here, she was up there the other week looking for something or other. I could hear her creaking around in my bedroom though she said she was just using the bathroom.

Anyway, it’s starting to get dark outside. Must be later than I thought. She’ll be here soon then she can fetch those peas down for me.

[“I married my brother’s best friend” South Eastern train | Tunbridge Wells | Sunday 20 February 5.40pm]

Have you got enough petrol?

The woman had a face like a crumpled scrotum and usually wore a blue anorak with a tightly pulled belt around it and a pair of jeans that were too short and flapped around her ankles like Prince Charles’ ears. She hopped onto the bus with a goofy smile. “Have you got enough petrol?” she asked the driver.

“I hope so,” replied Eddie as she beeped her Oyster card through the reader and guffawed at him.

As she took a seat towards the back of the bus, Eddie rolled his eyes and tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He often drove this route, and quite liked it in the main – it was short and sweet, there were no dodgy areas to go through and, apart from the horror of school’s out time, the passengers were quite bearable. The only downside, apart from the the occasional drunks and the threatening fare dodgers, the only downside was that bloody woman.

Every time she got on the bus, EVERY TIME, she made the joke about having enough petrol. It hadn’t amused him the first time, and it didn’t amuse him the fifty-first time so it certainly didn’t amuse him the hundred and fifty-first time. His fury grew as he thought about it more and more, pressing his foot down hard as the bus struggled up Muswell Hill. Once he caught sight of her waiting at a bus stop his blood pressure immediately started to rise. He knew she was going to get on his bus and he knew she was going to say it, there was no way to avoid it trapped as he was behind his smudged plexiglass screen. He’d see her wave her arm out at the bus, hold his breath as she fumbled in her pocket for her bus pass, grit his teeth as the doors opened and she clambered on. Then she’d open her mouth and say it. “Have you got enough petrol?”

Even thinking about it made him cross. Sometimes he would be at home in the bath after a long day’s driving, and her face would pop up out of nowhere.

“Have you got enough petrol?”

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, several times now he’d been enjoying a bit of married time with Diane, his wife of seventeen years, when suddenly:

“Have you got enough petrol?”

And that would be the end of that. He’d tried to explain it to Diane but wasn’t sure she quite believed him and last week he’d found a leaflet entitled Impotence: recognising the signs stuffed into his coat pocket which she must have thought was a subtle way to deal with the issue. Subtle – hardly. He’d accidentally pulled it out of his pocket in the caff the next morning while he was scrabbling for change to pay for his bacon butty and hadn’t noticed it drop onto the floor. One of the engineers from the depot picked it up and handed it back to him with a smirk. Eddie knew he was being paranoid but since then every time he heard any of them laughing he was convinced it was aimed at his little problem. And that cheeky bugger with the ginger hair who drove the 144 always wagged his little finger limply when their routes crossed.

He watched her leave the bus at the top of the hill and as she bustled off and he turned his bus into the small parking area in the middle of the roundabout, he fantasised briefly about running her over. Squashing her with his big heavy old wheels. Bosh, gone, never to annoy him again. He’d never actually run someone over in fifteen years of bus driving which was a miracle considering the regularity with which people wandered out in front of him. Seriously, pedestrians were idiots – he’d given more than one a piece of his mind for not looking where they were going, a near miss always brought him out in a cold sweat. But he could happily squish her if it meant never seeing that gurning face again, never hearing those bloody words again. Splat – gone. The idea made him smile.

He drove off on the last leg of his journey, thinking mostly about the pie and chips that would be waiting for him at home. As wives go, and he’d only had the one so he was no expert, she wasn’t a bad one. Diane worked as a school dinner lady and to be frank, looked exactly how you would expect a dinner lady to look: jolly and completely round with curly blonde hair that stuck out in random directions depending how she’d slept. He still loved her as much as he had all those years ago when they met at a mutual friend’s wedding. A short courtship had been followed by a cheap and cheerful wedding which in turn was followed by seventeen years of what they both considered to be happy marriage. They fought sometimes of course, and they’d never really got over the disappointment of not having children (Eddie’s low sperm count was to blame). But they’d compensated with holidays in the sun and a collection of pornography that would be hard to rival outside the grubby back rooms of Soho. If he was honest, the pie made him feel more excited these days. He was hoping for Fray Bentos steak and kidney – something about that tinned flaky pastry really got him going.

The roads were quite busy so it took a while to get back to the garage where he happily decamped and headed home. As he pushed the front door open he expected the whiff of dinner to race up his nostrils but was a bit put out to find the house in darkness and a completely pie free zone. There was a note on the kitchen table ‘sorry love, gone to mum’s she’s having a turn’. A turn at his pie by the look of things. Eddie crumpled the note up and threw it towards the overflowing bin in the corner. Bending down to open the fridge he had a forlorn hope that there would be a plate ready to microwave, but no. Nothing except two pints of milk and some salad. Diane often bought fruit and vegetables at the supermarket which sat in the fridge going mouldy and ended up and Eddie’s compost heap. “So they aren’t going to waste,” Diane would argue. She admitted that she only bought them to look good in the checkout queue: “If people see I’ve got a trolley full of chips and cake they’ll think I’m a fatty won’t they,” was her cockeyed reasoning. “So I got some satsumas and a cabbage.”

Eddie put his coat back on and walked up the road to the chippy then ate it from the paper in front of the telly. He left the mushy peas. He didn’t realise he’d fallen asleep until the sound of Diane rattling the key in the door made him splutter. “Sorry love, didn’t realise it was so late. Did you get your dinner? Mum rang in a right old state so I had to leg it over there. She’s ok, just fretting about global warming again. I said you’re better off worrying about your own warming you silly old bat – put the bastard heating on, it’s freezing in here.”

Eddie sighed – his mother in law’s fixation with the end of the world as we know it was a constant pain in his backside. If she’d been round to visit, he’d find sticky notes on everything with instructions – either ‘recycle me’ or ‘use me again’ or the slightly threatening ‘don’t buy me again’. The last one had turned up on his can of deodorant. What the fuck did she want him to do – stink the bus out? His passengers left enough of a pong behind without him adding to it. He rolled his eyes and scrunched up the chip paper on his lap. “You’d better recycle this then” he yelled, throwing it at Diane’s head. She caught it and added it to the pile of rubbish in the corner then shook her head.

“Cheeky bugger, I’m going to bed. You coming?” she asked, with a suggestive wink.

“Not yet love, be up in a bit.” Eddie wasn’t in the mood for another failure under the duvet.

“Did you… um… did you find that thing I put in your coat?”

“No.”

“Yes you did, or you wouldn’t know what I mean. Did you read it?”

“No.”

“Well you should. Ohhh come on, give it a go – I’m all tingly for a bit. We can get Myrtle out of the cupboard if you like…”

“I said no.” Eddie was getting pissed off. “I’ll be up in a bit.”

He turned the volume up on Question Time where a bald man was ranting about the NHS. Diane puffed her way up the stairs more huffily than usual and he could hear her banging around up there in a strop. Tough, he thought. He’d had enough of women for one day.

Next day, picking up passengers at the top of Muswell Hill, scrotum face was first in the queue. “Got enough petrol?” Her gormless grimace as she leaned towards him was almost more than he could bear. He gritted his teeth, clenched his fists and tried to force out a smile back. She went and sat down. He could see her in the mirror clutching her shopping to her pigeon chest. Proper fried eggs, she had. Not like Diane, she’d always been very well endowed in the bosom area. He set off down the hill to the big junction at the bottom thinking idly about fried eggs.

A loud beep from behind shook him back to attention, Eddie hadn’t noticed the lights had changed. He shrugged his shoulders and jolted the bus back into life. He could see there was nobody waiting at the next stop, and sailed past. In the mirror he saw scrotum face stand up and reach for the bell. She always rang it twice, as if she was a 1950s bus conductor. Eddie smiled. He put his foot down and sped right past her stop. And then past the next one too, ignoring the shouts from behind him from everyone who wanted to get off, and ignoring the people waggling their arms forlornly who wanted to get on. He drove straight down the main road with a broad grin on his face. This felt good. He could feel all the tension leaving his body as he did the unthinkable and left his designated bus route. People were banging on his window, shouting at him, yelling and swearing. But they didn’t bother Eddie. He carried on, zooming through a red light, jolting the bus from side to side and scattering passengers willy nilly. He heard crashes and bangs from upstairs, and looking in the mirror could see the terrified faces of people who had suddenly found themselves in a low budget remake of Speed.

Eddie drove and drove, stopping for nothing in case someone used the manual button to open the doors and spoiled his plan. He had to keep her on the bus. The passengers, most of whom had been scared into stupefied silence, were all sat back in their seats waiting to see what would happen next. Several of them were on their phones shouting at the police for help – he’d heard a siren in the distance but ignored it and drove on. His arms were aching from clutching the steering wheel so tightly. Sweat was running down his face. His eyes were shining. He knew the London traffic would do him over eventually so he had to make the most of it while he could – it wasn’t long before he saw exactly what he was looking for and swerved off the road with a crunch.

There was silence for a moment as he turned the engine off. Eddie pushed the cab door open and stared at his wild eyed passengers. “You”, he said, pointing to scrotum face with a shaking finger. “Come here.”

Scrotum face went even paler than she had been and stood up. Eddie grabbed her arm and pulled her to the front of the bus. They had stopped at a petrol station. “Have you ever seen a bus at a petrol station before?” he shouted. He could hear relieved passengers fighting to get off the bus behind him but he kept a firm grip. “Well have you?”

“Nooooooo.” she squeaked.

“No you haven’t. Do you know why? Do you?”

She was struggling to get away from him now and he could hear the sirens getting nearer, this was his last chance. “I’ll tell you why love. Buses run on diesel. I’ve never had enough petrol. You want to get your facts straight.”

She wriggled her arm free and stared at him, then picked up her shopping and scrabbled to the exit. “Well I hope you’ve got enough,” she shouted as a policeman reached in and pulled her off the bus. Eddie sank down, exhausted but exhilarated. It was sausage and mash night, and he could be wrong, but he felt a bit of a stirring in an area sausage and mash didn’t usually reach. He hoped the police would let him go in time for supper.

[“Have you got enough petrol?” W7 bus | Crouch End | Sunday 29 January | 1.40pm]

Losing the Fonze

Once the joy of freedom had worn off, and following a stern lecture from his father, Johnny kicked off the hangover he’d had for a week and realised that as long as there was beer out there waiting to be drunk, he had to earn some hard cash. So he’d scanned a few job websites and registered for jobs he wasn’t qualified to do and made one doomed and slightly torturous expedition to the job centre. Which is why he now found himself sat at the top of a hill at Alexandra Palace with a can of coke in one hand and a Greggs sausage roll in the other, gazing gormlessly out over London.

This was one of the most beautiful views in the city – a whole skyline right under your nose, from the big wheel on the Southbank right across to the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf, punctuated here and there by the growing number of ridiculously shaped buildings that were springing up out of nowhere. The latest one looked a bit like a giant peppermill invading the capital – ready to grind anyone in its path. Or maybe just sprinkle them with a bit of pepper in a suggestive manner.

Johnny wasn’t stupid, but he was spectacularly badly equipped for an office job, which was why he kept being sacked from them. The monotony of a job that required you to do much the same thing every day, wear the same grey suit, and have the same conversations over and over again with people he’d never normally want to spend time with combined with the rare joy of smelling the same people’s musty armpits on the tube first thing in the morning and last thing at night – this wasn’t the sort of life that made him click his heels with joy when the alarm went off.

As he sat contemplating the misery that lay ahead when he had to go home and report another failed job hunt, something landed on him. Something warm, muddy and hairy which seemed to be extremely interested in his sausage roll. “Fonze! Fonze! Come here, leave the poor man alone. Fonze! Here now!”

Johnny looked up. A small angry woman wearing an anorak and pink wellington boots was bustling towards him with five or six dogs of varying sizes chasing behind her. It was an interesting sight. The muddy hairy thing that had jumped on him was in fact a large alsatian which was now haring off towards a clump of trees with the sausage roll in its teeth, leaving several large footprints behind him, mostly on Johnny’s only smart pair of trousers. “I’m so sorry,” said the woman, panting for breath. “It’s The Fonze – I can’t make him behave. It’s like being in charge of a hairy explosion.”

That’s ok,” replied Johnny as he cautiously stood up and brushed off the mud. “My mum’ll wash them.”

The woman started clipping leads on to the other six dogs which were a range of breeds and sizes – from a very jolly looking terrier to a rather aloof looking red setter who looked like he wasn’t used to mingling with such mongrels and was outraged at the mud he’d managed to get on his paws. “Fonzie knows it’s hometime you see, he never wants to leave the park. But I have to get them all back home before five or the owners start to worry and my phone starts ringing.”

“Aren’t they all yours?” asked Johnny, tickling the sorry looking red setter between its ears.

“Oh goodness me no,” she laughed. “I’m a dog walker. Professional, you know.”

Amazed that there could be any such thing, Johnny laughed. “People pay you to walk their dogs? That’s brilliant.”

“Well some days it is, some it isn’t,” she replied. “Rainy days, not good. Cold days, not good. Days when the bloody Fonze is being mardy not good at all. That’s not his real name mind you, he’s really Prince Alphonso Magenti III – his owner would kill me if he knew what I called him when we’re out. But really, who is going to stand in the middle of Ally Pally shouting for Prince Alphonso Magenti III?”

Prince Alphonso Magenti III had disappeared out of sight. “Do you need a hand with them?” asked Johnny. ‘”I’ve nothing to do for a bit, I don’t mind.”

“Oh, that would be lovely,” she replied, thrusting a leash at him. “I’m Lesley – Fourpaws dog walking services. If you could just see if you can find The Fonze, I’ll get this lot into the car and come back for him. It would be such a help, my assistant quit on me last week and I haven’t had time to find anyone else yet.”

Johnny watched her and the dogs head off and smiled. He thought dog walking probably paid enough to fund a bit of beer while he sorted his life out. As luck would have it, The Fonze suddenly materialised by his side sniffing his pockets for more pastry based snacks. He grabbed his collar and headed over to make his future boss an offer she couldn’t refuse.

Two weeks later, and it was all going swimmingly. He took five or six dogs out each day, and apart from the poop scooping, which required a strong stomach and a lack of any sense of smell, he was a natural. Lesley was pleased too, it meant she could spend more time in her garage where she’d set up a small dog grooming parlour which was where the real money could be made. So apart from the daily chase after The Fonze at home time, it was a happy arrangement.

Johnny would set off in the old banger Lesley kept solely for dog business (really, who would want to sit in a car that was home to six muddy, farting animals twice a day) picking up pampered pooches from relieved parents or more usually au pairs or just releasing them from lonely windows where they’d be sitting waiting patiently for walkies time. Then he’d spend an hour in the park letting them run all their energy off, drop them back home and pocket the cash – £20 each for an hour’s walk, not too paltry even once Lesley had taken her cut.

She was quite reasonable as a boss too, though extremely paranoid about losing one of the little darlings, especially The Fonze, whose owner was a big and quite scary man who worked in security. If he wasn’t walked twice a day, Fonze would tear up whatever he could get his teeth into, so he needed a proper bit of exercise to wear him out. The first time Johnny had picked him up, Marco had answered the door dressed only in a wife beater vest and a pair of purple budgie smugglers. He was completely bald and covered in large faded tattoos saying things like ‘Hate’, ‘Arsenal 4 Ever’ and ‘Mother’ and his arms were so large he looked like he could barely lift them. Marco had fixed him with a hard stare as he handed over Prince Alphonso Magenti III and warned “Nothing happens to him, right. He’s the missus’s baby. You lose him, or he gets hurt in any way – you get hurt. In every way.” He repeated the threat every time Johnny collected The Fonze, just in case he’d forgotten. He hadn’t.

All things considered, it wasn’t a bad job, thought Johnny, as he let Minto, Shorty, Growler, Chuckie, Lola and The Fonze off their leads and watched them chase off across the grass. They never seemed to get into much trouble, and he’d got to know a few other regular walkers in the park so there was usually a chat or two to be had while the dogs were busy sniffing each other up the bum. Today he’d got stuck having a lengthy conversation with a whippet owner about motor engines – not something he had the slightest interest in, but he was one of those men who think their every utterance is fascinating and don’t pause for breath, making it impossible to escape. Twenty minutes later, he heard Lola barking and, relieved at the excuse, wandered over to see what was up. Lola was yapping at a squirrel that she’d chased up a tree, and was now furious she couldn’t get up there after it. Johnny dragged her away. “Home time,” he shouted. “Come on you lot, home time.” Four more dogs were soon firmly attached to his wrists. Just The Fonze missing. No sign of him as usual.

Half an hour later, and there was still no sign of him. Johnny had shut the other dogs in the car and searched as far as he could – The Fonze had never disappeared like this before, even the waggle of his special bag of doggie chocs hadn’t worked its usual magic. After a painfully apologetic call to Lesley, he dropped the other dogs back at their homes and returned to the park alone. Lesley had told him not to come back without Prince Alphonso Magenti III – and if he did, he would be the one breaking the news to Marco. The thought of this made Johnny sweat more than running up and down Ally Pally hill had done. He clambered through trees, waded through mud, peered into bushes but The Fonze was nowhere to be found. And it was getting dark. His voice hoarse from shouting and with wet claggy mud splashed up to his knees, Johnny finally gave up and called Lesley.

“Marco has been ringing up every twenty minutes,” she snapped. “I’ve been putting him off, but he knows something is up. You’re going to have get over there now.”

Johnny had often heard the expression bowels turned to water. But only now really understood what that felt like. He was beside himself. Marco was a big man. And he was in shape. This was not a conversation that was going to end well. With one last look around the now pitch black park, and one last sad shout of “Foooooooonze!” Johnny dug out the car keys from his pocket and headed for trouble.

The car was the last one left in the large parking area, a slightly sad looking old Fiat which had seen much better days. Crunching the door shut, Johnny buckled himself up and tried to work out what he was going to say. As he left the park and turned onto the main road he narrowly missed hitting the tail end of a W3 bus, just pulling out of a bus stop where a gang of men heading for a night at the darts had all clambered off. Two were dressed as the Super Mario brothers and one was struggling to cross the road because he couldn’t move his legs far enough to step off the kerb in his Bananaman costume.

Johnny followed the bus to the traffic lights and pulled up alongside, still trying to think of a good reason not to have his face smashed in. He wondered if it might have been less painful to crash into the bus, and looked up sorrowfully towards its grimy windows. As the lights changed, he left the bus behind and turned onto the main road that would lead to his doom.

It was a shame that he couldn’t see inside the bus where, much to the amusement of its remaining passengers, Prince Alphonso Magenti III was sitting on a seat on the left hand side of the bus looking calmly out of the window.

Luckily for The Fonze, Marco had had him microchipped and a nice man from the RSPCA drove him home later that evening when a surprised bus driver found him still sitting on the same seat at the end of his shift. Lesley told Johnny the news when she visited him in hospital the next morning. “So it all ended well,” she said. “No thanks to you. I’ve promised Marco I would sack you, sorry about that. But you can’t do much dog walking anyway with that broken arm, and my old assistant has said she wants her job back. So it’s all worked out for the best really.”

Johnny looked down at the rude words his mates had written on the cast on his leg and decided that maybe office jobs weren’t so boring after all.

 

“The Alsatian was sitting on the left of the bus looking out of the window.” 144 bus | Turnpike Lane, London | 13.1.12 | 4.30pm

On the bus

Alice felt a bit sorry for January – it is the shittest of months. The weather is generally a bit on the grey side and everyone is miserable as sin because they are skint and grimly pretending to be detoxing. January really doesn’t have anything to recommend it – Halloween and Bonfire night make sure they sneak in early, like an opening act for Christmas, Pancake and Valentines day wait until all the health kicks are out of the way so people can make the most of necking carbs in the name of love and, ahem, fasting. And Easter stays well out of the way despite shifting itself around the calendar like a fat man on a bench. So January really has nothing to recommend it.

It wasn’t a month for bucking the trend, Alice thought as she scanned the shelves in her local supermarket for healthy treats. You know, the sort of thing that looks healthy on the outside and makes you feel terribly virtuous but actually has more calories than three Mars bars. Cereal bars, the scourge of the careless weight watcher. There were loads to choose from, but only one brand had chocolate chips so it wasn’t a hard decision to make. Plus they were on offer, two for the price of one. And only two packs left – it was fate. That solved the problem of what to have for dinner then, and breakfast.

Filling her basket with a few other essentials, Alice felt in the mood for a bit of head banging frustration, so opted for the self service checkouts. A handful of people were thrusting objects at the scanner in a random fury, red lights were flashing, bells were ringing and one man was huffing and puffing and red faced, shouting ‘it’s not unexpected, I bastarding well scanned it you cocking idiot’ while smashing a baguette into crumbs over his head. Yes, today was definitely a self service till sort of day.

As she aimlessly waggled a tin of baked beans across the screen, Alice cast her eye over the cover stories in the magazine she’d stuffed into her basket:  I Married My Dog, My Girlfriend Turned Out To Be My Uncle, I Thought I Was Having a Poo But it Turned Out to be a Baby and so on. One in particular caught her eye – I Fell In Love By The Frozen Peas. It was obviously one of those urban myths her mum was obsessed with, about finding true love in the supermarket. Not in Wood Green, she thought, huffily. As she scanned the magazine and cautiously bagged it, she looked around to see where love might be. There were a few men close by, one was wearing pyjamas held up by a piece of string, another had baguette crumbs on his head, and a third was wearing glasses that might once have belonged to Benny Hill and shouting “Tits!” at the assistant trying to help him. As Alice frowned at him someone next to her leaned over and said “The tits man of Wood Green – haven’t seen him for a long time”.

She looked up, it was a frankly quite attractive man who was bagging a large bunch of bananas and some assorted vegetables. “I’ve never noticed him before,” answered Alice “Is he a regular then?”

“Notorious in these parts, harmless but a bit disconcerting for the ladies I suspect.”

The machine was shouting at Alice to please take her bags, so she grabbed her shopping and smiled. “Well I hope he’s not on my bus home,” she grinned and wandered quite slowly out of the store, hoping the man and his bananas wouldn’t be far behind her. But as she held her breath heading through the entrance to the supermarket (because it always smelled of stale tramp wee) she couldn’t see him anywhere. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted, she thought and hurried over the road just as her bus pulled up.

Plonking herself down at the front of the top deck, one of the few seats that wasn’t strewn with chewed up chicken bones and half eaten chips, she looked down at the people still milling about below her, in true Wood Green fashion making no attempt to queue whatsoever. And there he was – Mr Bananas – running for the bus and yes – just making it in time. Alice held her breath… were they his feet climbing the stairs? She was still looking out of the window as the footsteps approached, and someone sat with a sigh on the seat right behind her. Damn, she couldn’t just look round. Alice desperately tried to see his reflection in the window, but someone had scratched ‘your mum sux cock’ into it with a handy accompanying picture in case you weren’t sure exactly what it meant, so her view wasn’t the best.

“I see you escaped the tits man of Wood Green then”.

Was he speaking to her? He must be. She looked round, it was him. Mr Bananas. Alice grinned “I was hoping he’d follow me onto the bus actually, I could do with a bit of excitement.”

Mr Bananas picked up his shopping bag and grinned back “Do you mind if I join you on the front seat? I still like to pretend I’m driving the bus.”

“Of course not,” replied Alice, picking up her own shopping bag from the grimly stained bus seat so he could squeeze in. As he sat down, the bus rounded the corner towards Ally Pally, taking it a wee bit too sharply. As the bus jerked, Alice’s shopping fell off her knee and emptied itself all over the floor. Thanking her lucky stars she hadn’t bought anything too embarrassing like a Pot Noodle or Your Cat magazine,  she smiled gratefully as Mr Bananas bent down and stuffed everything back in her bag. “Thank you so much,” she said as she put the bag back on her knee “these buses are like something off Wacky Races sometimes”.

“No problem at all – happy to help.” answered Mr Bananas. “Actually I have to get off at the next stop, so I’ll leave you to it.” And off he got.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, she thought and looked out of the window to see where he was heading. Where he was heading quite quickly was the bus stop on the other side of the road where the bus heading back to Wood Green had just stopped. Alice wrinkled her forehead – how strange, she thought. He must have got on the bus going completely the wrong way maybe just to talk to her. But then he got off without even asking for her number. Something must have put him off – but what? She hadn’t had a chance to say much, there was nothing she could think of that he might have been offended by unless it was a tin of beans and Real Life Stories magazine.

As the bus pulled away, she glumly thought that she would never understand men and reached into her bag to console herself with a cereal bar. That’s strange, they weren’t there. She hunted through the bag again, then peered under the seat to see if they’d slipped under there. But no, no cereal bars at all. In the back of her mind, she remembered seeing the same brand in Mr Bananas’ shopping bag as he had hurried off the bus. Alice remembered that she had taken the last two from the shelf. I suppose he could have got there before me, she reasoned. But deep down she knew – he hadn’t been after her, he’d just wanted her cereal bars.

“She thought I was after her but I just wanted a cereal bar.” Curzon cinema, Soho | 10.1.12 | 6.45pm”