Authors: Adele Parks
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2009
Copyright © Adele Parks, 2009
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book
Dedicated with much love to
A woman who thoroughly understands an unsuitable crush
‘Do I smell, Mark?’
‘You’d tell me if I did, right?’
‘Is my hairline receding?’
‘You’re sure I’m not going bald?’
‘Do you think I’ll lose my teeth?’
‘Only if someone punches you.’
‘My nan got gum disease.’
‘We’ve got great dentists. Scott, you are coming down and this is just another one of your irrational worry sessions. We can waste a lot of time doing this, mate.’
‘Mark, do you think I’ll end up broke? You know, blow it all.’
‘No, we’ve sorted out your finances. You’re never going to suffer from poverty – other than poverty of spirit. No matter how many TVs you throw out of hotel windows.’
I have taken a bullet. I live an ordinary life. I’ve almost accepted it. Almost.
I ought to clarify I don’t always go around thinking big, profound thoughts like that. Quite a lot of the time I amuse my brain cells by thinking about which movie star is shagging which other movie star (and do they have better sex than us mere mortals), or whether I can get away with not washing my hair if I’m inventive enough with my up-do (thus securing an extra thirty minutes in bed in the morning). My idea of deep is wondering whether organic food is worth the huge price tag or whether it’s all just a ghastly marketing con. But today I am twenty-nine years, eleven months and three weeks old. I can no longer keep the big thoughts at bay.
Let me clarify, when I say ordinary, I mean normal, average, run of the mill, commonplace. Mundane. Clear?
I know, I know. I should be grateful. Ordinary has its up-side. I could be some human mutant with skin stretchy enough to be able to wrap my lower lip over the top of my head, or an über-fertile woman prone to giving birth to sextuplets and now be a proud mother of thirty-six indistinguishable, media-loving brats or someone who really does train-spot. Then my life would be considerably worse than the one I am leading, but even knowing this is not as much comfort as it should be.
I live my ordinary life with Adam. My boyfriend of four years. I hesitate to refer to him as my partner because that would suggest some sort of equality or responsibility in the relationship and, frankly, both things are notably lacking. I organize the paying of all the bills (although he does cough up his share when prompted). I buy groceries, cook, clean, remember the birthdays of his family members, buy wedding gifts for our friends, arrange travel and accommodation if we ever do manage to grab a weekend away, I even put the pizza delivery people’s number on speed dial. Adam alphabetically arranges his CDs and vinyls in neat rows, all the way along our sitting-room shelves.
Yes, we do share a flat. A two-bedroom flat in Clapham. Not the posh bit of Clapham, sadly. The bit where the neighbours think old pee-stained mattresses and settees, spurting their cheap foam innards, are acceptable alternatives to rose bushes in the front garden. Despite sharing a flat, I also hesitate to refer to Adam as my live-in lover because that would suggest an element of passion and that’s notably lacking too, of late. Our relationship is more prose than poetry. It wasn’t always that way.
We used to be wild about each other. We used to swing from chandeliers, or as good as. There was a time when we couldn’t keep our hands off one another. Which led to some, er, shall we say interesting situations. I’m not trying to brag. I just want to paint a fair picture. We are certified members of the mile-high club and we have made love under canvas, in a swimming-pool and once in a botanic garden (Kew). We made love frequently and in many, many different ways; slowly and carefully, fast and needy. In the past we often came at the same time. Now, it’s unusual if we both are in the room at the same time.
I used to think we were going somewhere. It looks like we’ve arrived. This is my stop. I have to get off the train and take a long hard look at the station. It’s not one with hanging baskets full of cascading begonia and there isn’t one of those lovely large clocks with Roman numerals. There’s nothing romantic or pretty about my station at all. My station is littered with discarded polystyrene cups and spotted with blobs of chewing-gum.
Frankly, it’s depressing.
We don’t own our flat. We don’t even have an exclusive flat-share. My best friend, Jess, also rents with us. Normally, I acknowledge that this is no bad thing. She is (largely) single and so we are each other’s on-tap company on those nights when she doesn’t have a date and Adam is at work.
Adam is in the music business. Don’t get excited. He’s not a rock star, or a manager, or producer, or anything remotely glamorous and promising. He’s a rigger; which, if I’ve understood things correctly, is one step up from the coach driver on a tour but not as important as the people who work in catering. He freelances, and while he must be quite good at his job (offers of employment are regular) it’s clear he’s never going to be a millionaire. For that matter, he’s never going to have so much as a savings account.
This didn’t used to bother me. I’m a florist and work in someone else’s shop: Ben’s Bunches and Bouquets or Ben’s B&B for short. Ben, who is as camp as a glow-in-the-dark feather duster, is an absolute angel of a boss but I only earn a modest wage. Jess works in a bookshop and, after thirteen years’ service, she has just reached the dizzy heights of store manager. We’re not the type of people to be motivated by money (one of my other great friends, Lisa, is married to a City lawyer and he’s rich but we think he’s nice despite that). I don’t resent Adam’s lack of cash. I resent his lack of… oh, what’s the word?
His inability to grow up. To move on. It is Adam who has jammed our brakes at the ordinary station because he’s a settler. He lacks ambition. When challenged, he says he’s content and throws me a look of bewilderment that’s vaguely critical. He thinks I’m unreasonable because I yearn for more than a tiny two-bedroom flat-share (all we can afford despite working endless, incompatible hours). I long for something more than Monday to Wednesday evenings in front of the TV, Thursday nights at the supermarket, Friday and Saturday nights at the local and Sundays (our one day a week off together) sleeping off a hangover.
Recently, I’ve been overwhelmed with despair as I’ve come to understand that not only do I currently have very little in my life to feel energized about but, with the exception of hoping my lottery numbers come up, I have absolutely nothing to look forward to in the future. This is it for me. The sum total.
When I was a tiny kid I once saw a deeply unsuitable sci-fiTV show where the goodies were trapped in a room and the walls were closing in on them, about to crush them to death. The same menace was used in Star Wars Episode IV but Princess Leia had it really bad because she was knee deep in garbage too. I found the concept truly horrifying and suffered from nightmares for months. Lately, as I watch the (supposedly) best years of my life amble off into the dim distance, I’ve started to experience the same nightmare again. I wake up sweating with the taste of fear in my mouth. I’m going to be squashed to death by the walls of a tiny room.
In the beginning I was impressed by Adam’s joie de vivre; his jaunty carelessness was part of the attraction. I loved it that he would find the time to listen to some demo disc from a yet to be discovered band. A demo disc that he’d scrounged from a no one and would pass on to Someone; not because of the lure of brash financial gain but just because he thought this band might be the next ‘it’ – more, he thought they deserved to be the next ‘it’. I didn’t care that I didn’t actually understand what he was on about when he said something like, ‘This band is totally thrashing with PJ Harvey-meets-Throwing Muses Fire, yet it’s so completely purring with hectic pop.’ I wonder if he cared that I just smiled and said nothing. Maybe my lack of knowledge about the pop scene has been interpreted as a lack of interest, because Adam’s stopped urging me to listen to lyrics that are ‘all about a breakneck chase through messy relationships’. I think he’s accepted that my music tastes are mainstream. It’s a shame in a way, because while I didn’t understand what he was on about I did respect that he was on about something. I loved it that Adam had this extraordinary passion and I believed it would lead to something big. Problem being I never actually defined exactly what that something big might be – and nor did Adam. Yes, he pointed one or two promising bands in the right direction and they went on to greater things. But Adam’s stayed still. Ground to a halt.
Thinking about it, it’s a good thing that Adam has stopped asking me to join him at the gigs of struggling bands which take place in tiny underground bars that flout the no-smoking laws. I wouldn’t want to go to those sorts of places any more. When you are twenty-five it’s easy to be impressed by passion, creative flair, free spirits, etc. etc. When you are pushing thirty it’s hard to resist being contemptuous about the very things that attracted you. Why is that? One of life’s not so funny jokes, I guess.
On evenings like this one it’s particularly hard to remember why I thought dating a gig rigger was ever a good idea. On evenings when Jess is out on a proper date (at some fancy restaurant somewhere) with some guy who has potential (a hot merchant banker that she met last Saturday) and I’m left alone with nothing more than a scribbled note (attached to the fridge by a Simpson’s magnet which we got free in a cereal box), I struggle.
I’d especially asked Adam to stay home tonight. I’d said to him that I wanted to talk. Well, to be accurate, I pinned up a note to that effect on the fridge this morning; we didn’t actually speak. Adam was working at a gig in Brixton last night and he didn’t get home until three this morning. My boss Ben and I take it in turns to go to the New Covent Garden flower market each morning and today it was my turn, so I had to leave the flat by 4 a.m. I didn’t have the heart to wake Adam so I left a note. It was clear enough.
We need to talk. Don’t go out tonight. Don’t accept any work. This is important. I’d underlined the words ‘need’, ‘don’t’ (both of them) and ‘important’. I thought I’d communicated my exasperation, urgency and desperation. Apparently not. Adam’s reply note reads: Got a sniff of a big job coming up. Lots of green ones, Fern-girl. Would love to gas tonight but no can do. Later. Luv u.
When I first read the note I kicked the table leg, which was stupid because not only did I knock over a milk carton which means I now have to clean up the spillage but I hurt my foot. It’s Adam I want to hurt.
I drag my eyes around the flat. It’s a bit like rubbing salt into an open wound. If I was sensible now I’d just pick up my bag and phone a mate (or use any other life-line) and I’d head back into town for a meal and a chat. It’s a rare lovely summer evening. We could sit on the pavement outside a cheap restaurant and drink house wine. But I don’t call anyone. Actually, I can’t. Jess and Lisa are the only two people I could face seeing when I’m in this sort of mood and I know neither is available. I have other buddies but they are either friends Adam and I share (and therefore not useful when I want to let off steam about his inability to grow up and commit) or they are my good-time-only friends (also not useful when I’m steaming).
Jess is on her date and Lisa can never do a spur-of-the-moment night out. She has two kids under the age of three. A night out requires a serious time-line leading up to the occasion and military precision planning on the actual night. She grumbles about the lack of spontaneity in her life but Jess and I refuse to take her grumbles seriously; we both know that not only has she everything she ever wanted, she also has exactly what we want too.
So, it’s a night in the flat with just the washing up to keep me company – the flat that epitomizes all that is wrong with where I am at, just one week before my thirtieth birthday. Great.
Jess and I have tried to make the flat as stylish as possible on our limited budgets. We regularly visit Ikea and we’re forever lighting scented candles that we buy from the supermarket. However, all our good work can be undone in a matter of minutes if Adam is left unsupervised – in many ways he’s a lot like a Labrador puppy. Because he, and many of his mates, work nights they often waste away a day hanging around our flat. When Jess and I leave for work the place usually looks reasonably smart. Not posh, I realize, but clean and tidy. When we come home it looks like a particularly vicious hurricane has dashed through.
Today the place looks especially squalid. The curtains are drawn even though it’s a bright summer evening. My guess is that Adam and his mates have been watching DVDs all day. A guess that is confirmed when I find several discs flung across the floor, giving the flat the appearance of a bad dose of chicken pox. There is a collection of beer cans abandoned on every available surface. Most of the cans have stubbed-out fag ends precariously balanced on top, which I hate because our flat is supposed to be a non-smoking space. The scatter cushions have been well and truly scattered in messy heaps on the floor (men just don’t get it – cushions are not to be used, they’re for decoration) and I’m annoyed to notice something has been spilt on one of them (coffee, I think). The room smells of stale, male sweat; this might be a hangover from the numerous bodies that have been rotting here today, but more likely the hideous stench is coming from the pile of skankie trainers that are heaped next to the TV. Why Adam insists on taking his shoes off in the sitting-room, and then leaving them there for eternity, is beyond me.
I draw back the curtains, fling open the window and start to gather up the empty cans and cups. I work efficiently, as irritation often makes me noticeably more competent. Ben has commented that I pull together the most beautiful bouquets just after I’ve had to deal with a particularly tetchy customer. ‘Darling, temper works so well for you. You are a true artist and these lilies are your brushes; this vase your canvas.’ (Ben honestly believes he’s a secret love great-grandchild of Oscar Wilde.) I throw the trainers to the back of Adam’s wardrobe, I put the soiled cushion cover in the wash basket and while I’m there I sort out a quick load of darks and pop a wash on. I wipe surfaces, dust and drag out the vacuum cleaner. It is only once the room is shiny and clean that I allow myself a glass of wine. I think a large one is required.
I carry the goldfish-bowl-size glass of Chardonnay back into the sitting-room, plonk myself on the settee and start to flick through the TV channels. Annoyingly (and predictably, considering my tense mood) nothing grabs my attention. Maybe some music will help. I flick through my CDs. As I’ve confessed, my tastes are mainstream and my CD collection is probably identical to tens of thousands of other women, my age, up and down the country. In my teens I was an Oasis girl, who wasn’t? I have a bit of Röyksopp and Groove Armada that I listened to in my early twenties, especially when I was in the mood for luuurve. There was a big loungy vibe going on at the time, or at least I think there was – there was in my flat. More recently I’ve bought CDs by the Arctic Monkeys, White Stripes, Chemical Brothers and Scouting for Girls. I buy these CDs on average six months after they’ve been big in the charts. Hidden in a box near our CD racks I also have Diana Ross and Dido, who I listened to approximately once a month throughout the first half of my twenties (whenever I broke up with my latest squeeze). I hate it that being with Adam has somehow made me apologetic about my collection. It’s brought me hours of entertainment, consolation and fun. Surely that’s what music is about. Half the stuff Adam listens to sounds trashy, loud and overly aggressive or just plain old depressing, if you ask me. But then, he doesn’t ask me. Not any more.