A newly finished story for your consideration. I think it will need another draft to tighten it up a wee bit and I’m not sure the ending is quite there yet but this is the longest thing I’ve written in ages!
All feedback greatfully appreciated.
Rust Never Sleeps
We were still at school when we first met. My pal Tommy had been trying to get fixed up with her best friend Susan for ages. Susan was playing hard to get and had refused to contemplate any sort of liaison with the bold Tommy unless he could find a suitable partner for Karen as well. Tommy, fully in thrall to his hormones, had agreed without a second thought and, crucially, without asking me first.
I was fizzing when he finally told me. ‘Come off it Tommy, you had no right to do that.’
‘Sorry mate, I didn’t think you’d mind. I mean, it’s not like you’ve got a bird already is it?’
‘That’s not the point!’
‘Well I thought I was doing you a favour. Anyway, it’s not like I’m asking you to marry her or anything. I just need you to go on a double date with me and Susan. She isn’t going to let me anywhere near her unless I bring someone for her mate.’
I was having none of it. ‘Aye, and what does that tell you about her mate? She’s going to be some beast if she can’t get a fella on her own.’
Tommy had made the face he saved for teachers at school when accused of getting up to no good. It made him look like a kicked puppy and it was horribly effective –even I wasn’t immune to its effects if he really laid on the patter.
‘C’mon mate, you know me better than that. Susan says she’s really nice – she’s just really shy. The pair of them had already arranged to go out together and Susan doesn’t want to ditch her.’ He made the puppy eyes again. I had no doubt he had used similar tactics on Susan in the first place.
I sighed and waved my hands in a gesture of surrender. ‘Oh, ok give it up already. I’ll go.’
‘Cheers man.’ His eyes returned to their normal size and a broad grin split his face.
‘But you’re paying us into the pictures – it’s the least you can do.’
I had arrived at the cinema a full twenty minutes late. The two girls were swapping chitchat with Tommy; he clocked me approaching and made a point of glowering at his watch.
‘Where’ve you been? We were just getting ready to go on without you.’
I shrugged and mumbled something about my sister hogging the bathroom. I’m sure that my lack of enthusiasm was radiating from me in waves. ‘It’s no big deal. Anyway, you know there’s always about half an hour of adverts before the film even starts.’
‘That’s not the point – besides, I like to see the trailers.’
I rolled my eyes. There was no point trying to argue with him.
‘This is Karen,’ he said turning towards Susan’s mate.
‘Hello,’ I said, taking my first proper look at her. Maybe it was because I had made up my mind to expect the worst but my view on the evening changed in that instant. She had dark-eyes and bobbed hair that framed her face perfectly. I could see why Tommy liked Susan; he was into the whole superficial thing. Alright, she was pretty but you could tell she knew it as well. I also noticed that there was a hard set to her features when she didn’t get her own way.
Karen was looking me up and down like a shopkeeper eyeing a dodgy tenner. I could tell that she didn’t like what she saw and felt my heart sink a little. ‘Better late than never, I suppose,’ she said. I searched my brain for something clever to say that would regain the initiative and came up empty.
‘Come on Tommy, let’s go and get some popcorn before we go in,’ Susan said taking him by the arm. ‘You pair comin’?’ My traitorous tongue remained stubbornly tied behind my teeth.
I looked at Karen and managed to mumble. ‘Well, should we go inside then?’
She shrugged and gave a wee sigh. ‘Not like I’m going to walk home on my own now is it?’
I don’t really remember much about the film –it barely left an impression on my frontal lobes as it passed by. To tell the truth I wasn’t even really watching it because I was so busy looking at her. She sat there in the semi-dark, her face lit up by the glow of the screen as she watched the flickering images. Now and again, she would shift in her seat and her leg would brush mine – and it would feel like little electric shocks running up my skin under my jeans. I treasured every second, smelling her perfume floating over the atmosphere of stale popcorn and hot dogs wafting around the room.
I glanced over and saw that Tommy and Susan were less than discreetly grappling with each other. It took a moment to realise that Karen was looking at me. I reacted by making a sort of half smirk that was supposed to be the kind of wry smile I would see blokes pull on the telly but it must’ve come out wrong because she hissed at me.
‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Romeo.’
I felt my face start to burn.
‘I wasn’t… that is… I mean that.’ I stammered trying to make the words come out right. I realised that I was talking out loud.
‘Can’t you bloody kids keep it down?’ came a voice from somewhere behind. My face was glowing by this point. I could feel it pulsing with shame. I made as if to stand up, my trainers struggling to break free of the sticky floor. The glowing green exit sign was beckoning me from across the cinema. It looked as if it was half a continent away.
Karen’s hand was on my arm, gently but firmly pulling me down.
‘Easy tiger – you’re not going away and leaving me on my own with love’s young dream over there.’
I sank back into my red velvet chair, not sure what was going on. My face still felt like it was under a sun lamp.
I realised that she hadn’t taken her hand off my arm yet. Better yet, she was smiling at me. Her hand slipped down my arm and she clasped mine. I could feel my hormones begin to bubble in a not entirely unpleasant manner and I was sure that I was glowing all over like I was one of those kids from the Ready Brek adverts.
‘Stay for a bit,’ she said.
‘Ok.’ I could feel my Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in my throat as I said it.
When the film finished I offered to walk her home – even though I knew she stayed a fair distance from my house. We had left Tommy and Susan to their own devices.
‘Your face was a classic,’ she said. ‘It’s a wonder the place didn’t catch fire with the heat coming off your beamer. ’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘That makes me feel so much better about myself.’
‘Aww poor wittle boy,’ she said in a baby voice. ‘Luckily I felt sorry for you when that man shouted at you. I thought you were going to do a runner for sure.’
‘I’m surprised you didn’t let me – I didn’t think I made much of a good impression on you.’
‘You didn’t – I thought you were a prize prat, but I was determined to stick it out because Susan had made such a fuss about me coming along.’
‘Tommy was the same – the two of them will go far together.’
We walked all the way to her house talking as if we’d known each other for years. The rest of the world was just a moving backdrop to our conversation until we reached her front gate.
‘Well, this is my stop,’ she said putting her hand on the latch.
I nodded at her, wracked with indecision. Should I move in for a kiss or play it cool? Should I ask for another date? My mind whirled – why did I have to over-think everything?
I could see Karen’s eyes flick towards the house. Fuzzy light leaked out from behind the closed curtains.
I made my decision and leaned in to kiss her. Our lips brushed, tentative at first then more forcefully. Her mouth felt soft, welcoming. Inside my chest, my heart hammered on my ribcage as a surge of adrenalin caused it to blast blood around my veins. It was as if the world had started to spin faster for a few moments.
‘I’d better go inside, my dad will be sending out the search parties if I don’t make an appearance soon.’
I didn’t want the moment to end but realised that it was time to go. We arranged to meet again the next night and then I was on my way back home with my head still in the clouds.
‘How’re you gettin’ on man?’ Tommy asked. He was up from Newton visiting for the weekend. We were at Andrew Johnson’s flat-warming party and I was glad to have him along. Tommy and Susan had proved to be a short lived affair. After a few months it turned out she had been seeing another bloke on the side. I thought Tommy would take it all in his stride but he was gutted and nearly ended up failing his exams. He was working in Currys now flogging toasters and tellys.
‘Ach, alright I suppose,’ I told him. ‘It’s not like school here. Nobody is telling you what to do so they pretty much let you get on with it.’
‘Well it is and it isn’t.’
‘How’d you mean?’
‘Well, when you’re at school the teachers are always on your back to get homework and stuff done but here nobody chases you – it’s easy to slack off and get left behind. Three guys on my course dropped out just before Christmas and I only scraped through my end of year assignment with some serious library time.’
He clapped me on the back and handed me another bottle of beer. ‘You’ll be alright mate – just takes a wee bit of adjustment is all.’
‘Aye, suppose you’re right.’
‘How’s your better half getting on?’ He waved his beer in the direction of the kitchen.
‘Karen? Oh she’s doing great. She really likes it here.’
Karen and University were tailor-made for each other. At school she had been smart enough to fade into the background and dodge the poisonous cliques that girls always seemed to get themselves into. As soon as she hit campus she completely re-invented herself. All of a sudden her wit and intelligence were valuable commodities rather than something to be disguised. She relished being the centre of attention, holding court with her classmates in the Union bar between her tutorials, switching between debating the vagaries of 20th Century American literature and whether Oasis were better than Blur. I would join them sometime but usually I’d keep my mouth shut rather than risk looking stupid. I looked over at her; a couple of hulking rugby types was hanging on her every word. She looked over and waved before returning to her conversation.
I must have made a face because Tommy raised an eyebrow and said, ‘Really?’
I took a sip of my beer and sighed. ‘To tell the truth mate I’m seeing less and less of her at the minute. I’m so busy with trying to keep up with my coursework and she’s either busy with her own stuff or out enjoying herself. We barely get five minutes together most days.’
‘That’s the price you pay for success pal. Would you rather you were back in Newton trying to sell extended warranties on fridges? You’ll both be done in a couple of years and off to whatever exciting careers you have lined up by then. This is just a wee speed bump in the road.’
‘Aye, I suppose you’re right mate. Just spending too much time with my head up my arse I suppose.’
Tommy swigged down the last of his beer. ‘Well, what are we waiting for then? Let’s get over there and go rescue your fair lady from the Gruesome Twosome.’
Things were going ok until I ditched the beer for shots. Someone had brought a bottle of tequila and was making slammers so I thought I’d give them a go. The music got louder, and for a wee while I felt like I was on top of the world. I remember having my arm round Tommy’s shoulder while we both roared along to “Bittersweet Symphony” demanding that it be put on again and again. There was some dope going around as well and I took a couple of puffs just to be sociable. Tommy had temporarily abandoned me to chat up some medical student he’d managed to ensnare.
The next thing I knew my tongue felt way too thick for my mouth and the world around me was spinning ever so slightly faster than it had before. The takeaway curry Tommy and me had necked back at my digs earlier was shifting uncomfortably in my stomach. I blundered off to the bog mumbling apologies as I weaved through the other party goers. Of course the bloody thing was occupied and I spent what felt like half an hour weaving unsteadily from foot to foot with a layer of sweat beading on my brow. I would occasionally interrupt the weaving to thump the door. Eventually I heard the sound of flushing followed by the door opening. I didn’t even wait to see who came out and dived inside to kneel at the ceramic altar. The porcelain felt blessedly cool against my cheek. I closed my eyes and the spinning stopped for a moment. From somewhere deep below I felt an ominous rumble and hugged the bowl tighter. My breath roared in my ears as I ducked my head over the rim.
My takeaway came up in a torrent gushing into the water below. My bottom jaw opened the way you see snakes do in nature programmes on the telly when they swallow a gazelle or something. There were stars bursting in front of my eyes as I spluttered and spat into the pan, tears streamed down my face. The smell of recycled Tequila and Biriyani mingled with the piney scent of rim block.
‘You ok there mate?’ said a voice. I lifted my head to see Andrew looking down at me.
‘Yeah,’ I sniffed. ‘Sorry about this.’
He shrugged. ‘It happens to the best of us. Somebody was going to have to christen the thing sooner or later.’
I was just hauling myself up, legs still a bit wobbly with the drink, when Karen appeared.
‘There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.’ She said. ‘What happened?’
‘I think he had a bit too much to drink,’ Andrew said.
‘I’m fine,’ I said. I could feel my jaw clench at what I took to be a condescending note in his voice.
‘Maybe we should head off,’ Karen said. ‘I’ll get Tommy and we can walk you back to your flat.’
‘I said I was fine.’
‘You’re white as a sheet.’
‘I just need a wee minute to settle that’s all.’
‘I can a taxi if you want to head off on your own.’ Andrew said.
‘No, I think I better take him home.’
‘Did I suddenly just disappear?’ I asked.
‘There’s no need to shout.’
Suddenly all the simmering resentment from earlier boiled to the surface.
‘I AM NOT SHOUTING!’
‘Look, maybe I should just leave you two to sort this out,’ said Andrew, raising his hands defensively.
‘I’m really sorry about this,’ Karen told him.
‘No worries.’ He headed back into the living room. Karen returned her attention to me.
‘Thanks mum,’ I said.
Karen scowled. ‘What the hell are you playing at?’
‘I hate it when you try and boss me around.’
‘I am not bossing you around.’ She let out an irritated sigh. ‘Look, you’ve obviously had a bit too much for one night. I’m just trying to look out for you that’s all. Come on, I’ll go get our coats. I can give Tommy my key if you don’t want to cramp his style.’
I had thought that the throwing up would have sobered me up and restored a bit of common sense.
I was wrong.
The fresh air hit me like a hard slap. It was only about half a mile’s walk to my flat but that was more than enough time to get riled up all over again.
‘What’s gotten into you?’
‘It doesn’t sound like nothing. I thought you were having a good time.’
‘How would you know? Not like you actually spent any time talking to me until now is it?’
‘Is that what this is about? Christ, I never knew you were the insecure type.’
‘Oh fuck off!’
‘You heard. Fuck off with your patronising. You’ve turned into a real stuck up bitch since you arrived here.’
‘Grown up you mean.’
We both stopped walking.
‘Oh yeah, you’re so mature poncing about with all your psuedy mates in the Union bar thinking your all so super intellectual.’
‘Oh right, now who’s being patronising?’ I could see her face twist with a mixture of anger and upset. ‘If you hate me so much then why are we still together?’ She started to walk away and I grabbed her arm.
‘Ow! Let go of me.’
‘I said LET GO!’ She yanked her arm away and stomped off down the street leaving me staring at her back.
‘Ka-ren,’ I shouted.
She ignored me and kept on walking while I stood fuming with impotent drunken rage.
‘So anyway, I had to do some big time grovelling the next day,’ I said. We were in The Forge for a couple of post work pints. There was me, Tommy, Lauren and a few others from the office. It was two for one on cocktails and we were all sipping on tall glasses garnished with umbrellas and bits of fruit while I recounted the sorry tale of the ill-fated flat warming. Lauren was a recent arrival in the Planning office so I’d invited her out with the rest of the Friday crew so she could get to know everyone a bit better.
‘What did you do?’ Lauren said.
‘I wrote a very long apology letter and attached it to a dozen red roses.’
‘Don’t forget the balloon,’ Tommy said.
‘The balloon?’ Lauren looked confused.
‘When I went into the flower shop I asked if they had any “I’m Sorry” balloons and sure enough did they not have giant helium filled one with a sad-eyed puppy on it.’
‘I think that was the clincher,’ said Tommy. ‘She made him walk around campus all day with it tied to his wrist.’
‘Aww that’s so sweet,’ Lauren said.
‘I’ve never touched tequila again, that’s for sure,’ I said. ‘I learned my lesson on that one.’
‘So when’s the wedding?’
‘That’s only a few months away. Getting nervous yet?’
‘Naw, to tell the truth I don’t even think about it all that much. I’ve sensibly kept my nose out of most of the arrangements and just let Karen and her mum get on with it.’
‘Well, apart from the most important job,’ Tommy said.
‘What’s that then?’ Lauren said.
‘Choosing a devilishly handsome and dashing Best Man,’ Tommy said.
‘But when I couldn’t find him, I asked Tommy instead.’
Tommy blew a kiss and took a sip of his cocktail. ‘At least with me you get a massive discount on all the electrical stuff on your wedding list.’
‘Oh that’s right,’ said Lauren. ‘Alan told me you worked in Currys.’
‘I think what he meant to say is that I manage a Currys thank you very much.’
‘It must have slipped my mind.’
‘I’ll let you off this time,’ he said. ‘Same again?’ he pointed to our much diminished glasses.
Tommy got up and headed for the bar.
‘So, how long have you been working in the Planning office?’ Lauren said.
‘I landed the job right after graduation.’
‘Did you not fancy staying in the city?’
‘When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to get out of Newton but a few years away have changed my view of the place a bit. Once the wedding is out the way we’re going to sell our wee flat and put a deposit down on a proper house.’
‘What about your better half?’
‘Karen landed a job teaching English in our old school after doing her post grad teaching course so she’s happy.’
‘Sounds like everything is going great for you both,’ she said.
‘Can’t complain,’ I said. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m renting a flat but looking to buy someplace soon.’
We carried on talking. The others flitted in and out. Tommy took up station on the fruit machine for a while looking to recoup some of his cocktail funds.
‘I suppose we should think about heading on soon,’ I said. ‘It’s going to be last orders in a bit.’
‘There’s no rush,’ Lauren said. ‘After all, it’s not like we have work in the morning.’
‘Aye, but I promised Karen I’d get in at a decent time. We’re supposed to be going into town to look at places to go on our Honeymoon.’
‘Are you not leaving it a bit late?’
‘We’ve been holding off to try and get a last minute deal.’
‘Oh well, that makes sense I suppose. Do you want to come see my flat? It’s only down the road. You and Tommy can stop in for a coffee and I’ll give you the guided tour.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ I said.
The streetlights were just starting to come on. The town was starting to fill up with people in their glad rags heading out for the evening and taxis were circling the streets like sharks. The craic was good and Tommy was his usual entertaining self regaling us both with his fund of annoying customer stories. We had stopped off for chips to soak up some of the drink and fragrant steam rose from the wrappers to fill our noses as we walked. The conversation was rudely interrupted when Tommy’s mobile started to vibrate in his pocket and play the guitar riff off “Welcome to the Jungle”.
‘Hello? Oh Hi Frank, how’re you? Not bad – just been out for a few jars. What’s that? You’re kidding. Shit, what are the odds?’ he looked at his watch and almost tipped his remaining chips onto the pavement. ‘Well, I suppose I could call it a night just now and head home. Alright, you do that and I’ll see you first thing tomorrow.’ He thumbed the phone off and jammed it back into this jacket pocket.
‘Something up?’ I asked.
‘Aye, that was Frank my assistant manager. Two of the staff have called in sick for tomorrow. I’m going to have to go in and help out.’
‘Aww shame,’ Lauren said.
‘Tell me about it – I was planning on a lie in.’
‘Can’t be helped I suppose,’ I said. ‘Just think of it a some bonus overtime money – it’ll help make up for your losses on the puggies tonight.’
‘True. Anyway, I’d better love you and leave you. It was nice to meet you Lauren. I’ll just have to see this flat of yours some other time.’
‘Bye Tommy. Safe home.’
‘I’ll give you a bell tomorrow night aye? I still need to sort out a kilt fitting for the pair of us.’
‘Aye do that. I’ll be in about half six,’ he started to head up the street towards his house. ‘See you.’
‘Looks like it’s just you and me then,’ Lauren said.
‘At least now we can both get a word in edgeways,’ I smiled.
‘Sometimes I like to just listen,’ she said. ‘Why can’t I meet a single guy like you – all I ever seem to end up with are arseholes.’
‘You barely even know me,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Karen would be happy to provide you with a list of my less attractive qualities.’
‘I think most people don’t appreciate what they have under their noses until they lost it. Maybe you two have been together for so long that she’s forgotten.’
The distance between us had shrunk considerably I realised. My neck felt warm and alcohol tainted blood was rushing to my head in spurts. She stepped in closer and put her hands around my waist.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘We’ve all had a few drinks and a nice night. Let’s not spoil it by doing something silly.’
‘Don’t you find me attractive?’
It was a classic female trap – up there with “does my bum look big in this?” Any answer, or even no answer at all was going to be the wrong one. ‘Of course, I find you attractive,’ I said. ‘I’m not blind. Any guy would consider himself lucky to meet you.’
I raised my left hand and pointed at my ring finger.
‘She doesn’t have to know. I just want to have a little fun – no strings attached.’
‘There are always strings. Besides which, we work together every day – it would be impossible – not to mention really awkward for both of us don’t you think?’
She was giving me the big wide innocent eyes. Her hands were holding me in close to her and for a moment I thought she was going to lean in and kiss me. Part of me didn’t know what I would do if she did.
She sighed. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘I feel so stupid.’
‘It’s all right. Listen I like you but I’m not a cheater.’
‘Oh God, I really wish I could take back the last five minutes.’
‘Look let’s put it behind us. It was just the drink talking that’s all.’
‘You must think I’m mental.’
‘Nah, just confused and half cut – happens to the best of us.’ I stepped back, feeling her hands slip away from my back. ‘I think I’m going to pass on that coffee though if it’s all the same to you.’
‘Good night Lauren. See you at work on Monday.’
I walked off home, wondering what Tommy would have done in my place. I decided never to ask him.
The wedding had come and gone and life had settled into a routine. It was hard to place the exact date and time things had gone wrong. Things had been going great and then they weren’t. There was no crisis, no boiling point, no explosion of pent up feelings. It wasn’t like that. It was more like slow corrosion bubbling away under the surface and it had started to grow like a cancer at the heart of our relationship. I was starting to think that maybe all that stuff about seven-year itches was true and familiarity had set the rot in motion, or maybe it was just a plain old lack of communication. All I knew was that the meaningful conversation between Karen and me had dribbled to a halt months ago, replaced with the everyday banalities of occupying the same space with another person. Whatever we both felt, we had no desire to share it with each other anymore.
Sometimes when I woke up in the morning with the sound of the shower drumming against the glass screen in the bathroom, I would notice that my arm had sneaked across the divide to touch the last embers of warmth. I would feel the place where she had lain, smelling the faint traces of her hair on the pillow and I would catch myself remembering the happier times. Then life would move on – work filled the days, the evenings generally spent sitting reading or watching television. It felt like we were exhibits in a museum of marriage, going through the motions for the benefit of the public.
I would lie at night, listening to the cars pass by our window and watching the shadow shapes on the wall. There were only a few inches of bed separating us but that narrow expanse of white was no-man’s land in our ongoing Cold War. I would lie there trying to fall asleep turning our relationship over and over in my head and try to decide whether it was worth saving.
Finally, over breakfast one morning I decided to take the plunge.
‘We need to talk, ‘I said.’