Chapter Twenty Three: Summer In The City

The heat is rising, and just as Fliss and I would like to stand still for a while and reflect on the past few weeks, it appears that life has made other plans for us. In the midst of the chaos that July has brought, I met up with Nat and we caught up on each others lives; it was the end of my first week as a Researcher for Zimas, a small publishing company based in the backstreets of Manchester, and I had mixed feelings about my new career as an office girl. “What is it they publish again?” enquired Nat, with a frown, as she sipped her coffee.

  “Building and architecture stuff; pretty boring really,” I confessed, wryly.

  “That’s funny ‘cos one of the girls at the Flea and Firkin near work used to work for a publishers like that: She said everyone left after about six weeks cos they couldn’t take it anymore.”

  “Well,” I shrugged my shoulders in their white shirt and shifted my feet in the uncomfortable, but smart, shoes, “it’s been alright so far; pretty boring, but not horrible or anything.”

  “Must be a different firm.”

  “Hhmmm,” but she had planted a seed of doubt in my mind, one that sprouted today when I saw the rubbery-lipped deputy manager laying into one of my new colleagues. She ran through the open plan office a few minutes later, sobbing her heart out, and I caught the eye of the girl at the next desk. She quickly turned away from me as, biting her lip, she returned to her work, looking as sickened as I felt.

  Nat is lucky in that she is now in a job where she has an awful lot of freedom, and doesn’t have to observe a dress code. As such, she was wearing a skin tight pair of denim three quarter length jeans with a purple shiny halter top and battered purple and white trainers, whilst I sweltered in flesh coloured tights, black viscose skirt, white poly cotton shirt, and smart shoes; I could already feel the blisters forming on my toes.

  Fliss has a new job too, and we discussed that briefly before turning our attention to Titanium Rose and our recent meeting with Alan Mitchelman, the A&R man at Sandra Dee records. He has been the last in a long list of A&R men and women who we’ve met and, for once, we all agreed that we liked him.

  “What was he like?” asked Nat, genuinely interested.

  “Well, he was very attentive for a start – he let us do the talking, but he wasn’t vague when it came to outlining the deal they would offer us, so that made a change.” Nat grinned as I concluded, “So everyone seems to be in favour really.”

  “So it’ll happen?”

  “Looks like it.”

  Our quest to find a record label hasn’t been too long or too torturous, but we’ve met some very obnoxious people along the way, as Nat knows, having heard me on the subject on previous occasions.

  As we were picking up our bags to return to work, I asked, slyly, “How’s Adrienne?”

  She smiled as she asked, “Who told you?”

  “Fergus worked it out.”

  She smiled even more broadly as she looked away, “Ah well, it was never going to work anyway…”

  “Is that it?”

  “Yeah,” we began to walk, “that’s it. It was fun whilst it lasted, but… easy come, easy go.”

  “Well at least that way no one gets hurt,” I murmured.

  “I think it’ll always be like that for me,” she sighed.

  I looked at her in surprise, “It bothers you?”

  “Sometimes,” she admitted, “cheap sex can be a little too cheap sometimes.”

  I stopped and asked in surprise, “She was that bad?”

  “Well,” she confessed, wryly, as she looked away from me and massaged her neck with her hand “it was rather like being on a high speed express train; very full on and quick, leaving you slightly disorientated when you get off.” She winced, “Poor choice of words, but, well… that’s how she was. You can’t get attached to someone like that – they never let you get close enough to try.”

  After work I made my way to Piccadilly and caught the 192 to Levenshulme where Fliss is now working. She was due to finish her supermarket shift imminently, so I thought I would pick her up and we could walk the rest of the way home. She was parking trolleys when I arrived, and I was struck by the contrast of the green and white of her skirt and shirt against the pink doc martens, pink tights, and the pink ribbons adorning her bunches. She waved as I approached, and then went back inside for her Bagpuss bag. We compared notes on our new jobs as we walked “Well,” said Fliss brightly as we neared home, “at least the money covers our rent rise now; we ought to be O.K for money this month, as long as nothing else goes up anyway.”

  “Something always goes up,” I moaned. My shoes were killing me.

  “Then we’ll have to keep scaling up our career expectations I suppose,” said Fliss, equally glumly.

  There was a message waiting for us on our ansaphone when we got home. It was from Jenny; she wanted to arrange a band meeting to discuss the offer from Sandra Dee.

     I don’t know a lot about Sandra Dee Records, but Flora filled me in at our next band practice whilst we were waiting for Fliss to arrive.  “It’s owned by Alice Benson who used to be in The Fat Tigers.” She said, then, noticing my blank expression, she added, “Ask your mum.”  (“Ah yes, fey Scottish C86 meanderings to love lost, heavy fringes, gigged with The Pastels a lot” said mum, which didn’t really clarify things, “she was the guitarist.”)

  Flora told me that Alan had purchased both of our singles on One Way Or Another, and that Sandra Dee had a good reputation with all their bands that she’d spoken to.  Jenny also has yet to hear a bad word against them, and she knows quite a few of their employees.

  Flora looked at her watch.  “Where the hell is Fliss?” she snapped, “She’s getting really crap about time keeping just lately.”

  In fact, Fliss was a full hour and a half late when she finally did arrive, which is something of a personal record.  We heard her flip flops on the stairs first, a scampering, thwacking noise that gradually slowed to a flip-flop, flip-flop slow, steady beat as she sailed down the corridor and into the room.  It was half nine, and the sun was setting outside, bathing the clouds gold and white in the blue sky as the grey walls of the Twilight practice room grew darker.  She was distracted and seemingly unconcerned as to her lateness as she got her guitar out of its case and set about plugging it in.  I heard her half humming, half singing ‘The Look Of Love’ as she approached the microphone.  It is impossible to shout at someone in such a state, so none of us even attempted to, instead we observed, with a mixture of affection and exasperation, as she proceeded to fluff, stumble and meander her way through all the new songs that we had so carefully put together.  It was infuriating and yet somehow, sweet.

  No sooner had the three of them put down their guitars than Fliss mumbled something about having agreed to meet friends in town and not wanting to be late.  Her eyes were trained to the floor the whole time that she was speaking, and a slight blush crept over her face as she delivered her little speech.  Without looking at any of us, she left before we could argue.  Flora, Katy and I stared after her fleeing form, utterly mystified.  “Well,” began Flora at last, “at least she’s happy”

  She and Katy left shortly after Fliss, leaving me to haul my drums home alone.  I went to bed almost as soon as I arrived home, with an unpleasant expectation that I would have to get up at half six for work, which is hardly a thought to fill you with joy.  Two weeks into the job, and I’m already terrified of oversleeping.

  I was woken at six by the door being unlocked downstairs and, knowing that it was futile to go back to sleep now, I got up and made my way towards the kitchen in pursuit of coffee.  Fliss was just opening the door to the living room when I came up behind her.  She turned around, and then froze, her eyes wide, her expression one of guilt and surprise.  I could tell from her clothes that she had only just arrived home, for her hair was loose from her usual bunches, and was messy and tangled, and her black velour slip dress was creased.  She was wearing foundation and lip-gloss, and had a lot of blue eye shadow and eyeliner streaked and smudged around her eyes.  She looked absolutely exhausted.  “Did I wake you up?” she asked anxiously “I tried to be quiet.”

  “It’s O.K” I reassured her “I had to get up soon anyway, want a coffee?”

  She shook her head “No, thanks.  Think I’ll have a shower, doesn’t seem to be any point in going to bed.” She wandered off in the direction of her bedroom.

  As I ate a breakfast that I usually had neither the time nor inclination to prepare or eat, I could hear Fliss singing against the backdrop of the shower, first ‘Central Reservation’, then ‘Love Hangover’, then the chorus to ‘Erotica’ in her high, girlish voice.

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JK Rowling and Tamora Pierce

I was stuck by this piece by Bidisha, which appeared in the Guardian the other week. At the height of the usual mania over the new Harry Potter film, she wrote a very moving piece about those who had grown up with the series.

It was only when she came to assess Hermione as a feminist character that I got a bit annoyed. Now, to my mind Hermione may be many things, but as interesting a character as I find her she wouldn’t be my first choice when it came to examples of inspiring female characters in fantasy fiction. I thought about this, and I’ve realised that this is almost definitely because I grew up reading Tamora Pierce, not JK Rowling. I think I was about 11 or 12 when I read the first 2 Song of the Lioness books, and seem to remember having to wait what felt like an absolute age (about 2 years) to read the third book in the series – The Woman Who Rides Like A Man – and about another year or more for the fourth and final book, Lioness Rampant. I was thinking about Pierce again because I’ve been re-reading the Trickster duology again, which were the last two books of hers to be published in the U.K. They were published by Scholastic, who also happen to publish Philip Pullman, and (I think) another well established British fantasy writer, whose name I can’t recall… I always thought it odd that the Pierce books have always done so well in America (prizes, bestsellers, school visits…) whilst generating a loyal following but little press interest over here. I do remember a brief paragraph in Bookseller once, years ago now, when the first 3 Harry Potter books were all out and the phenomenon was really taking off, which pointed out that Pierce’s heroines made Hermione look incredibly tame in comparison, but I don’t recall any other British press discussion of Pierce at all.

When it was announced that Scholastic would no longer publish Tamora Pierce after the Trickster duology, I did wonder if it was because they had other, bigger selling, more established, homegrown fantasy writers on their list. I also wondered if it was because of the nature of the Trickster duology, which is as dark in its way as the final Harry Potter book is. I expect I will never know.

So far as I have been able to find out, Pierce still doesn’t have a British publisher, 3 years later, whilst continuing to write American bestsellers for teens overseas. How very odd…

Chapter Twenty Two: Birthday Girl

The sun rises early and relentlessly these days, making for warm still mornings, glaringly hot, humid afternoons and sultry evenings.  As the days have dragged on they have become hotter and stiller, closer and more stifling.  The air outside is thick with dust, pollen, and traffic fumes, and the litter on the streets rots and decomposes without being washed away.  From the drooping plants in their dry and cracked soil to the dogs roaming the streets, tongues lolling out of their mouths, to the shirtless men lying on sun loungers in their back gardens, newspapers covering their lobster red flesh… every species known to nature longs for rain.

  We held Fliss’ birthday party here last night, quite late, so as to allow for the weather to cool a little and for those of us who work on Saturdays to get home and change from damp and grimy work clothes into crisp, fresh party outfits.

  Fliss emerged from her bedroom around eight ish, wearing a pale pink cotton a-line sundress, which reached to just above her knees.  Her hair was in bunches and tied with velvet ribbons, which matched the dress, and she was wearing a pink and white seashell necklace; on her feet were a pair of new pink butterfly flip flops, a present from me.  Her mouth, daubed with lip-gloss, was trying to smile but I could see from her eyes that her heart wasn’t really in it.

  “Well, turn around, let’s have a look,” I said encouragingly.  She obliged, causing the hem of the dress to catch the air and lift up and out as her bunches twirled with her.  “Very nice,” I said, as she came to a standstill, her face slightly flushed.

  She surveyed my own outfit of dark blue jeans and black cotton shirt, knotted at the waist, with a doubtful expression.  “I didn’t want to be noticed much,” I explained.

  “Not even by Fergus?”

  I blushed “Yes, but… this is your party, not mine”

  “I don’t mind if you dress up”

  “I’m fine as I am”

  I made my way from the living room back into the kitchen where I was arranging the food on the surface next to the window.  Glasses were in short supply, so Katy and Flora were bringing some of their own, along with some bottles.  Peanuts and crisps were next, followed by biscuits, sandwiches… I was just putting the last of these onto plates when I heard footsteps on the lino.  I turned around just as he slipped his arms around my waist, and put my arms around his neck.  We kissed as Fliss slipped out of the room, and emerged from the embrace as she started the first CD of the evening, a sixties compilation; Dionne Warwick was singing ‘Walk On By’, which seems to be Fliss’ anthem at the moment.

  Soon Flora and Katy had arrived, bearing booze, confectionary, and a large cardboard cake box, the latter of which Flora quickly passed to me as Katy distracted Fliss.  I noticed that Katy had dyed her hair back to its natural brown and had begun to experiment with colours other than black.  She was wearing dark blue jeans with a red halter-top, and I felt strangely disconcerted by this change in her.  “Suits her, I think,” said Flora, as I returned from the kitchen.

  “Did you have anything to do with…?”

  “No, entirely of her own will”

  I shook my head in amazement; maybe it was the heat.

  Not many people had arrived by that point; Flora and Katy, Fergus of course, and all of Angel and the Razorblades, but they were it.  Nevertheless, Fliss was the centre of attention and was, at that point, sitting in one of the armchairs, unwrapping her presents, and beaming with happiness as her friends looked adoringly on.  The sound of ripping paper filled the air, and was complimented by the clinking of glasses and the CD player, currently playing Billie Davis’ ‘Walk In My Shoes’ at mid volume.  Some of Flora’s fashion student friends arrived next in a blur of designer punk clothes, dyed and teased hair, nicotine and spirits.  I had done all that I could with the food and drink, so, seeing that Fliss was happy and that everyone was nicely occupied, I went to find Fergus.

  He was outside in the garden that Fliss and I share with the couple in the flat below.  “Look” he pointed to the fence where some vivid orange flowers were growing “Tiger lilies” he walked through the calf length scorched and yellowing grass to the fence, and I watched as he picked a single flower and reversed his path.  The evening sun was turning the clouds pink and gold as he reached me and, perfectly seriously, held out the flower to me.  From the kitchen window above, I could hear Sophie Ellis-Bextor, singing ‘Take Me Home’.  I took the flower from him and tucked it behind my ear.  ‘Take Me Home’ finished, and ‘Lover’ commenced, Fliss must have been playing the whole album.  “Shall we dance?” he asked.

  “Yes please”

  The grass tickled my legs as I danced with him, slow and close, until the song finished.  It was too hot for dancing really, so we sat on the wall for a while, smoking and listening to the sounds of the party.  I rested my head against his shoulder and he put his arm around my waist.  I could have stayed there all night.

  Too soon, there was a knock at the door and, with a sigh; we made our way back to the front of the house.  There was a girl standing by the door who I had never seen before.  “Hiya” she had a thick Lancashire accent; not Bolton, broader than that, and she seemed very friendly.  “Nat’s just parking the car, she said to run along and knock.” She extended a pale arm.  We shook hands “I’m Rene”

  “Maggie” I was just introducing Fergus to the girl when Nat arrived, fresh from the night’s entertainments at Juvenile Hell.

  “Violet took Amber off to the south of France for a week, so I’ve been borrowing this one” she gestured to the girl “to fill in”.

  “Don’t tell Fliss about Violet and Amber” I warned her.

  “Course I won’t”

  We all traipsed up the stairs, Nat first in her glitzy ensemble, then the girl in her threadbare ripped and faded pale blue jeans and ripped t-shirt, a plaid shirt tied around her waist.  Her slim wrists were sporting studded wristbands, and her long dark brown hair needed washing.  I wondered where Nat had picked her up; I didn’t believe for a minute that she had found her at Juvenile Hell.

  The music grew louder as we neared the top of the stairs; the chatter of conversation, and the odd shriek complimented the throb of the bass.  Nat opened the door, and we re-entered the party.

  It took a few minutes to re-adjust my senses to the noise, the air, by now thick with the heat and smoke, and the sight of so many people, many of them strangers, gathered in so small a place.  After the last rays of sunlight in the peaceful dusk, the glare of the lights, smell of food, drink, sweat, perfume and smoke, and the soundtrack of laughter, chatter and music was overwhelming.  Nat and the girl quickly vanished into the thick of it all, whilst Fergus and I sought sanctuary in the kitchen.

  Sophie Ellis-Bextor finished and was replaced by Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines,’ the volume was pushed up to max, and was it my imagination or did the smoke grow denser and slightly more fragrant?  The heat was unbearable, and the air was filled with the sound of shoes clattering up and down the stairs as their owners ran down to let people in, or made their way downstairs in a quest for fresh, cool air.  When I re-entered the living room, I had long lost track of what was going on, of who had arrived and who had left, and of who was outside taking a breather.  So, feeling a little dazed, I sat down next to Fergus on the sofa and put my arms around him.  He kissed me lightly on the forehead, and together we surveyed the bewildering range of social and sexual interaction unfolding before us.  Nat was talking to Flora and some of her fashion student friends, seemingly about clothes, whilst Katy was curled up in one of the armchairs, carefully stroking an ecstatically happy Marmalade; she caught me watching her, and smiled.  Meelan, clad as ever in baggy skater jeans, was rifling through our collection of records, CD’s and tapes as a tipsy Angel and the Razorblades singer tottered past her in the direction of the kitchen, not looking at all well.  Concerned, I followed her and, seeing that she was desperately in need of fresh air, led her slowly and steadily down the stairs.  I had just got her outside onto the doorstep when she threw up.

  Patiently, I held her hair away from her face and waited until she had finished.  “I’ll never drink again,” she vowed, fervently and emotionally “Never ever”.

  “Or not until next week anyway” I added sagely.

  She started heaving again, and I got out of the way just in time.

  Having put the young singer, by now sleepy and headachy, to bed in my room, I re-joined Fergus on the sofa.  He was watching Fliss, who was engaged in a seemingly intense conversation with Rene, the pale, scruffy girl Nat had brought along earlier.  “Do you know who that is?” he asked me as we continued to watch them “Really is I mean?”

  “No” I couldn’t see what he was getting at all “Should I?”

  “She’s Adrienne Du Shanne”

  “Who?”

  “You know” he struck a pose that would have looked flirtatious on a woman but that, on him, just seemed camp, and began to sing in a hackneyed, pop/rap combination “’Cos I’m the girl who just won’t quit, I’m in and out, and you won’t sleep, I’m here to…”

  “Yes, alright,” I interrupted, “I get the idea – I can’t stand that song.”

  “Ah,” he smiled, knowingly, “But you knew it.”

  I sighed, wearily, and recited in a sing-song voice of boredom, “’Ghetto Girl’ by Girl Trouble, from their second album ‘Girls In Trouble’, which was the biggest selling album of last year, or so we’re told, making them the second, or was it third? I forget, biggest girl band of all time… girl power, rah rah rah…”  I knew all about Girl Trouble, how could I not? Their records and pictures, their relationships and marriages, their drunken exploits and tearful strops were in my face on a day to day basis, thanks to the media. Not a day went by, it seemed, without one or more of them appearing in their underwear on the cover of ‘FHM’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Later’, ‘The Sun’, ‘The News Of The World’, ‘Playboy’… tabloid headlines were written about them, designer clothes were made for them, at least two of them had had cocaine sex in (presumably different) west end nightclubs, and those songs they sung that weren’t covers had titles like ‘Late Night Call’, ‘Midnight Ride’, ‘Speaking In Tongues’. (Nat always said that they should just name their songs after cocktails and have done with it.) Number one record after number one record, all served up by four pouty doe eyed madams aged between sixteen and eighteen, who looked about twenty five, and who had succeeded in annoying me even more than the Spice Girls had when I was fourteen and was listening to Kenickie. Hot pants and micro mini skirts with fishnet tights and bikini tops were their trademark look, and they were matched by thick cover girl make-up and long flowing locks.  I took another look at the girl talking to Fliss “That can’t be one of them…”

  Fergus nodded vigorously “No, it’s definitely her.  They’re recording at a studio near Twilight, I saw them on my way home yesterday, signing autographs as they were leaving; it’s definitely her.”

  “But what’s she doing here?”

  He shrugged “I did think that she was one of Nat’s conquests, before I realised who she was, but that can’t be right can it? Girl Trouble just about have the word ‘Heterosexual’ tattooed across their…”

  I held up a hand in protest “Don’t…”

  We didn’t find a satisfactory answer to any of our questions, and I was beginning to feel drowsy as Saturday became Sunday.  People began to couple up, or leave, or both, and when I next opened my eyes, I could no longer see Fliss.  Fergus was asleep, so I got up and wandered, blearily, around the house.  The young girl I had left in my room earlier was by now fast asleep and snoring; her Doc Marten clad feet were hanging off the side of the bed.  I unlaced her boots for her, and removed them, placing them on the floor where she would be sure to see them when she woke up.  Afterwards, I worked my way from room to room, growing increasingly weary as I stumbled across innumerable couples fumbling with each other, and what appeared to be a badly put together bong in the bathroom.  I’ll deal with it all in the morning.  I thought to myself as I returned to the living room and Fergus, still fast asleep on the sofa.  He stirred briefly as I leant against him, and then went back to sleep.  Within minutes I was asleep too.

Chapter Twenty One: Early Days

It was half past eight when I arrived in Stockport, and shop shutters were being pulled up as I made my way through the streets to the car park which housed the staff entrance into the department store in which I worked. I nodded to Charlie Smith, who was on cloakroom duty as I made my way inside, and then walked up the uncarpeted concrete steps to the girl’s room where my fellow Catering Assistants were busy fixing their aprons. This done, we trudged back downstairs and handed our bags over to Charlie before making our way up to the fourth floor via the twisting and turning back stairs, emerging on to the shop floor via the ‘No Entry’ door near carpets and soft furnishings, the area adjacent to the café.

  By the time the first customers had arrived at nine, I was getting stuck into my first stint of the day on the Pot wash: a heavy industrial sized dishwasher, which opened and shut via means of a big metal lever-cum-handle which, when open, towered above even my head. It was fuelled by industrial grade washing up fluid that chapped hands within a matter of hours, making newer staff highly dependent upon the large vat of hand cream provided.  At 11am I handed over the reins to Kate, the undisputed Pot wash Queen, and took over from Carmela on the grill. My stint at clearing tables coincided with the initial dinnertime rush, which kept me busy shunting trays of leftovers and empties back to the kitchen, and ensured that I was collared every time I did so in order to take fresh orders out.

  My career as a Catering Assistant began in a different, and rival, department store when I was sixteen; the idea had been to earn some money whilst I studied at the ballet school. Once I had left that place, Catering became my occupation, and over the past four years I have been a Catering Assistant, Waitress, and Bar Girl. Of the three jobs, I tend to prefer the former, even though the pay is lower; I didn’t enjoy being a bar girl at all, even when I did drink, and after six months of it I diversified and went to work for Starbucks until another catering job came along.

  As I returned a plate of cheese on toast to the kitchen following a customer’s complaint that it hadn’t melted all the way through, I overheard Kate ask Sarah, our supervisor, if she could have a Panini for her lunch if she made and cooked it herself. I re-grilled the cheese on toast myself, then took it back out, along with a microwave’d pot of baby food, to a family group who came in every week. Kate reckoned that at least one of the women found something to complain about every time they came in, which frequently led us to wonder why they bothered to come at all. Mackenzie the Saturday girl reckoned that they liked complaining, Kate reckoned that they were secret shoppers.

  I spent my lunch break mooching about the town centre: We get a fifty percent discount on any food purchased in the brown and orange staff canteen in the basement, but aside from the coffee’s I survive on at break times, I tend to avoid it. I purchased a salad and a drink from Martins on Prince’s Street before mooching back to Merseyway and finding an empty bench on which to eat it, but it didn’t stay empty for long. The first to arrive were a pair of bickering pensioners who, from the sound of the argument, had been married for far too long, and they were soon joined by a woman with a baby in a pram and a sulky older child of about seven. After ten minutes or so, the woman and children, who appeared to be two siblings and their mother, had begun to compete with the elderly couple in sheer velocity, and what finally made them all move on was an elderly man in a flashers raincoat, bent trilby, and ruined boots: He was muttering to himself as he fed his sandwiches to the obese and cocky Merseyway pigeons, which spend their days mugging for food, flying into people, or else crapping on you. “Does nobody go to school these days?” he asked one of the pigeons as the sulky child, who had been openly gawping at the old man, was forcibly dragged away by his mother. “How do, m’am” he said as he nodded to me.

“How do,” I replied as I passed over the remains of my salad. “Do you want this?”

  He took it from me with a grave flourish, and proceeded to feed the pigeons with it as I took my leave.

  I found an unoccupied phone box that was working, and not too disgusting, and began to count out my change. Someone had stubbed out a cigarette on the handle, I noticed as I picked it up, but the phone box itself appeared not to have been set fire to recently. Fergus picked up his mobile on the fourth ring. “Keen,” I teased, “I like that.”

  He chuckled, “I wanted to be sure that I didn’t miss you. Got the number ready?” I read the phone box telephone number out, we hung up, and a few seconds later the phone in the phone box rang.

  I picked it up, and said, “Hello?”

 “Have you ever considered a double glazed conservatory, m’am?”

“Very funny, you’re the second person to call me ‘m’am’ today.”

  “Yeah?”

  “Yeah”

  “Who was this other person?”

  “An old man who mutters to himself and feeds the pigeons in Merseyway every day.”

  “Oh.” He swiftly changed the subject, “I was wondering if you wanted to meet up after work tonight?” he asked, hopefully.

  “I can’t,” I sighed, inwardly cursing as I said it, “I have market research tonight; I won’t be back until late, after ten probably.”

  We talked of other things then, but I could tell that he was as disappointed as I was.

  It was probably a mistake to phone Fergus at dinnertime, on reflection, for it meant that I was distracted when I returned to work. After half an hour on the grill, Sarah took me off it and put me on Pot wash instead because too many teacakes were being burnt.

  I was feeling less distracted by four, by which time it was my turn to clear tables again. I returned a stacked tray to the kitchen and took possession of a plate piled high with four toasted teacakes. As I negotiated the corner of the counter, one fell off, and I hurriedly retrieved it before returning to the kitchen to inspect the damage. Anybody watching from the floor would assume that I had returned to the kitchen to swap it for a new teacake, but in fact all I did was to check it for carpet fluff or dirt and, finding none, returned to the floor with it. I felt slightly guilty as I handed it over to an amiable looking party of pensioners, but I felt marginally less so when they complained, a mere two minutes later, that the teacakes didn’t have enough butter on them.

  I reflected, as I cleared another table, that now that my life appears to be back on track again, what with the flat, Fliss, Fergus, and the band, not to mention Jenny Malone, that I want to move forwards. I moved to another table, and added a cafetiere full of coffee dregs, plus two coffee mugs, to the two plates, leftovers, cutlery, and two teacups and saucers already on the tray. Jenny was now officially our manager, Fergus was now officially my boyfriend, and I had a nice flat with a nice, albeit sad at the moment, flatmate. I didn’t see the child until it was too late, as carrying a tray loaded with empties tends to block your line of vision as regards anyone under about four feet. She stopped, and I also stopped, swerving around her as I tried to avoid walking into her; unfortunately the contents of my tray didn’t stop… Still, as I told Sarah about fifteen minutes later, at least nothing had hit the child, instead she had run off screaming, but unharmed, to her blissfully unaware carer. I surveyed the damage with a heavy heart: The cups, saucers, plates and cutlery were all, miraculously, fine, but the leftover food had splattered across the floor, and the cafetiere, which was made of thin glass and metal, had smashed, spraying ground coffee dregs everywhere and covering the area with shards of glass. I returned to the kitchen and retrieved the brush and pan from their place behind the bin, and set to work cleaning up. The mop and bucket were needed next, which drew daggers from Sarah, along with a reminder that the cost of the cafetiere would be docked from my wages. By the time I had finished, it was time to go on break, so I took the resulting mess down to the rubbish bins in the landing bay by the smoking room. As I lit my fag, and bopped about a bit to Fuzzbox’s ‘Pink Sunshine’ on the department store tannoy, I reflected that it was just as well that I’d already started looking for another job.

  My second job of the day started whenever I arrived at the market research offices in Hazel Grove: They employed people on a zero hours contract, so you could pretty much start and finish when you liked as you were only paid for the hours you worked. Less staff worked there in the evening, and those that did were mostly students or sixth formers, who existed as a socially tight group, and who spent at least equal time talking as they did working; they had never included me in any of their conversations, and I had long since given up trying to speak to them.

  I took my first fag break at quarter to eight. You didn’t get breaks unless you smoked, so some people had re-commenced smoking in order to get out of the office for ten minutes. Of those leaning back against the wall, fags in hands, a small minority had reached the stage where they were smoking hash on breaks instead of straight tobacco. It was a rare source of pride to me that I had yet to reach that level of despair as regards this particular job: I intended to leave before I reached that stage.

  When I arrived home around half ten, it was to find a huge bouquet of yellow and orange flowers waiting for me. “Fergus sent them,” said Fliss, in brooding tones, as she handed them to me. I read the attached card, “Happy one week anniversary, Love from Fergus.” I smiled happily to myself as I carried them through to the kitchen.

Chapter Twenty: Summer On The Way

Fergus had actually been in for a change when I phoned him. “Well, I haven’t anything better to do.” He admitted wryly, when I relayed Katy’s plea for transport for her and the broken hearted Fliss. “Will you come too?”

  My heart lifted a little as I said, “Yes, it would be best if I did.”

  The sun had come out by the time he picked me up, and the air was warm with the promise of summer. It was a nice day for a rescue, I reflected, as we headed towards the motorway.

  When we arrived at Stoke, it was to find Fliss and Katy sitting inside the main station forecourt surrounded by luggage, and wearing expressions of misery and trauma respectively. All around them reunions and departures were taking place and the forecourt echoed with the sound of hellos and goodbyes, and the sound of suitcase wheels and high heels on the shiny floor. Fliss was resting her head on Katy’s shoulder, and I noticed as we approached that she had been crying; her face was pale and blotchy, her eyes red and puffy, and she looked absolutely wretched. Katy, I sensed, was very, very, tense; she looked up as we approached, and her shoulders sagged as her eyes lost some of their fire; she managed a cautious smile as she said, “Look, Fliss, the cavalry have arrived.”

  We sat down awkwardly next to them on the surrounding seats. “All set?” asked Fergus.

  Katy nodded, and began to gently nudge Fliss into action. They slowly got to their feet. “I knew we should have got the coach” swore Katy as she stretched.

  We began to make our way across the forecourt, negotiating the crowds with care. “Doesn’t the coach have really bad toilets?” asked Fergus, amiably.

  “No worse than Virgin,” said Katy as she shook her head, “and you pay less on the coach, and you actually get a seat, and they don’t dump you off at Stoke.”

  As soon as Fergus started the engine, Fliss lay her head back down on Katy’s shoulder and closed her tired eyes. Katy remained awake, but seemed uninterested in conversation.

  In the front two seats, Fergus and I silently navigated our way home.  Every so often, I would look at him out of the corner of my eye, and watch his hands as he lightly gripped the steering wheel, or I would watch him lift a hand in order to tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ears.  There was a pattern to it; every ten minutes or so, it would come loose again, and every ten minutes he would reach up to tuck it back into place.  Somewhere around Nantwich, I watched the same strand of hair come loose and lie against his cheek, then, before I could stop myself, I reached out and tucked it back behind his ear. My hand collided with his as I moved away, and he looked at me, startled.  I could feel my face grow hot as I looked away from him, and out of the window.

  In the queue to turn off the motorway, he took hold of my hand, and held it until the traffic began to move again and he was forced to let go, but the next road was gridlocked, and he held my hand most of the way, only letting go in order to change gear.

  We stopped at an out of town shopping centre, and as I leant against the boot of the car, and waited for the others to return, I gazed up at the cloudy blue sky and smiled.  I could feel the warm breeze on my arms and neck, calming me, soothing me.  I turned my attention back to the automatic doors of the supermarket.  I could see him walking towards me, carrying a carrier bag.  He put the bag down on the floor when he reached me, and leant back against the boot of the car.  He was so close that our limbs were almost touching as I reached out and took hold of his hand.  We stared ahead for a few moments, saying nothing, before I turned to face him, “Fergus…”

  He straightened up, and our eyes met once again.  So close… so very close… I could feel his breath on my face.  Then, from out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Fliss and Katy as they emerged from the shops eating ice creams, and the moment was lost.

  Fergus dropped Katy off before continuing on to Heaton Chapel.  He carried Fliss’ suitcase upstairs for her, and I walked him back to the car.  As he unlocked and opened the door, I took hold of his hand once more.  We dawdled for a while, exchanging awkward goodbyes.  “Thanks,” I muttered shyly, “for, you know…”

  He shrugged, “’S’alright”

  I stroked his wrist with my thumb.  He squeezed my hand, and I realised, for what wasn’t the first time, that we couldn’t go on like this.  He was so close to me that I barely had to lean forwards, and as I kissed him I felt him slip his arms around my waist.  He returned the kiss so softly that I wanted to cry.  My hands stroked his face as we continued to kiss, he moved so that he was sat on the edge of the seat, and then pulled me onto his knee as I draped my arms around his shoulders.    It was nothing like the night we went to Juvenile Hell, when all I wanted to do was get his clothes off, it mattered to me in a way that that night never could: I wasn’t scared anymore, I trusted him, this was something that I had instigated, and I hadn’t needed to get roaring drunk in order to do so.  That fact was almost more important to me than what was happening.

  All of these thoughts came to me later; of course, they came to me as I lay in bed this morning, re-living it all.  At the time, all I could think as he ran his hands down my back, as he held me, as he kissed me, was how much I loved him.

  He was still asleep when I woke up this morning. I reached across and moved a strand of hair out of his eyes.  He blinked, sleepily, at me as I kissed him, softly, on the forehead, “Morning”

  “Morning”

  “So glad you decided to stay this time instead of…”

  He placed a finger across my lips, “Shhh…” he moved the finger, and I was quiet.  He kissed me, and I was quick to respond, kissing him back as I pulled him closer to me.

  I heard the sound of a door opening, and Fliss’ voice as she walked into the room already talking; something about gigs and promoters and phone calls.  I couldn’t care less.  She stopped mid sentence and mid stride, “Oh!” I heard her cry in frustration.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her drop her arms in defeat, causing the too-long cardigan sleeves to flop forwards.  She stomped out of the room in a huff.

  Fergus and I stopped, looked at each other, and collapsed with laughter.