An update from the wee small hours…
My short story “Rust Never Sleeps” was up for discussion at the latest Lemon Tree Writer’s meeting on Saturday. When I posted it previously I did say that I reckoned it still needed some work so I have been busy tonight/this morning doing some editing. First off, I did a bit of tightening up – chopped a lot of extra words that weren’t needed. Secondly I have restructured the beginning and end a bit and finally, I have re-written the ending to take into account one very helpful suggestion about giving a reason why Alan and Karen’s relationship had hit the rocks. Thanks to all my Lemon Tree Writer pals for their invaluable feedback as always. The title, as the music lover’s out there have probably noticed, is shamelessly nicked from the wonderful Neil Young album as it seemed to fit the description of what was going on in Alan and Karen’s relationship.
Rust Never Sleeps (revisited)
Sometimes I wake up in the morning with the sound of the shower drumming against the glass screen in the bathroom and notice my arm has sneaked across the divide to touch the last embers of her warmth. 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 smell the faint traces of her hair on the pillow and catch myself remembering happier times.
‘Look mate, I’ve been trying to get fixed up with Susan for ages. She says she’ll go on a date but only if I can find someone to take her mate too.’
‘What’s that got to do with me?’
‘Well, I kind of said you’d take her.’
‘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.’
‘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 made the face he saved for teachers at school when he was 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 sighed and waved my hands. ‘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 arrived at the cinema twenty minutes late. Tommy 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. ‘It’s no big deal. Anyway, you know there’s always about half an hour of adverts before the film even starts.’
‘But 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 was really pretty. Unfortunately, she was looking me up and down like a shop assistant eyeing a dodgy tenner. I could tell that she didn’t like what she saw and my heart sank a little.
‘Better late than never, I suppose,’ she said.
I searched my brain for something clever to say but my traitorous tongue remained stubbornly tied behind my teeth.
‘Come on Tommy, let’s go and get some popcorn before we go in,’ Susan said taking him by the arm. ‘You pair comin’?’
I looked at Karen, ‘Well, should we go inside then?’ I mumbled.
She shrugged. ‘Not like I’m going to walk home on my own now is it?’
I don’t really remember much about the film. To tell the truth I was too busy looking at her while her face was lit up by the glow of the screen. 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. I treasured every second, smelling her perfume floating over the atmosphere of stale popcorn and hot dogs.
I glanced over to the left and saw Tommy and Susan grappling with each other. When I turned back I realised that Karen was looking at me.
‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Romeo.’
My face started to burn.
‘I wasn’t… that is… I mean that.’ I couldn’t make the words come out.
‘Can’t you bloody kids keep it down?’ came a voice from behind. My face was glowing now, 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 beckoned to me from 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 as if it was under a sun lamp.
I realised that she hadn’t taken her hand away. Better yet, she was smiling for the first time. She clasped my hand.
‘Stay for a bit.’
‘Your face was a classic. It’s a wonder the place didn’t catch fire with the heat coming off your beamer. ’
‘Thanks. That makes me feel so much better about myself.’
‘Aww poor wittle boy. Luckily I felt sorry for you when that man shouted. 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 reached her front gate.
‘Well, this is my stop,’ she said putting her hand on the latch.
I nodded, 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 her eyes flick towards the house. Fuzzy light leaked out from behind the curtains.
I leaned in to kiss her. Our lips brushed, tentative at first then more forcefully. My heart hammered on my ribcage as a surge of adrenalin blasted blood around my veins. The world 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 it was time to go. ‘See you tomorrow?’
‘Sure,’ she smiled. ‘Just don’t be late this time.’
I went home with my head in the clouds.
‘How’re you gettin’ on man?’ Tommy asked. He was up from Newton visiting for the weekend. We were at Andy Johnson’s flat-warming party.
‘Ach, all right 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.’
‘Sounds all right.’
‘Well it is and it isn’t.’
‘How’d you mean?’
‘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. 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. Could be worse after all – you could be like me flogging tellies in Currys.’
‘How’s your better half anyway?’
‘Karen? Oh she’s doing great. She really likes it here.’ I looked over at her; a couple of hulking rugby types were 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?’
Karen and University were tailor-made for each other. At school she had been smart enough to fade into the background. 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 hide. She relished holding court with her classmates in the Union bar between tutorials, switching between debating the vagaries of 20th Century American literature and whether Oasis were better than Blur.
‘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. I tell you what mate, you definitely ended up with the better deal with her – at least she didn’t go with another bloke behind your back like Susan did to me.’
‘Aye, I’m probably 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 rescue your fair lady from the Gruesome Twosome.’
Things were going ok until I ditched the beer for shots. 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.
The next thing I knew my tongue felt way too thick for my mouth and the world around me was moving in unpredictable ways. The takeaway Tommy and me had necked back at my digs earlier shifted uncomfortably in my stomach. I blundered off to the bog mumbling apologies as I weaved through the party. When I got there the door was locked and I had to spend at least twenty minutes weaving unsteadily from foot to foot waiting for the thing to become vacant again while beads of sweat formed on my brow. When the door opened I dived inside to kneel at the ceramic altar. The porcelain was cool against my cheek. I closed my eyes only for the spinning to continue. From somewhere deep below came an ominous rumble and I hugged the bowl tighter. My breath roared in my ears as I ducked my head over the rim.
The 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 baby gazelle. There were stars bursting in front of my eyes as I spluttered and spat into the pan, and 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 Andy looking down at me.
‘Yeah,’ I sniffed. ‘Sorry.’
‘It happens. 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. What happened?’
‘I think he had a bit too much to drink.’
I could feel my jaw clench at the condescending note in his voice. ‘I’m fine.’
‘Maybe we should head off. I’ll get Tommy and we can go 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 call a taxi if you want to head off on your own.’ Andy said.
‘No, I think I better take him home.’
‘Did I suddenly just disappear?’
‘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,’ Andy said.
Karen flushed with embarrassment. ‘I’m really sorry about this.’
‘No worries.’ He headed back into the living room.
‘Thanks Mum,’ I said.
‘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.’
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 stuck up bitch since you arrived here.’
‘Grown up you mean.’
We both stopped walking.
‘Oh yeah, and you’re so mature, poncing about with all your psuedy mates in the Union bar thinking you’re all so super intellectual.’
‘Oh right, now who’s being patronising? 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 kept on walking while I stood fuming with impotent drunken rage.
‘So anyway, I had to do some serious 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.
‘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.’
‘I’ve never touched tequila again, that’s for sure. 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; 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?’
Tommy got up and headed for the bar.
‘So, how long have you been working in the Planning office?’
‘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’s 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 so she’s happy.’
‘Sounds like everything is going great for both of you.’
‘Can’t complain. What about you?’
‘I’m renting a flat but looking to buy someplace soon.’
We carried on talking. 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.
‘There’s no rush. 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 Honeymoon places.’
‘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.’
The town was starting to fill up with people heading out for the evening while taxis circled the streets like sharks. The craic was good and Tommy was entertaining us with his annoying customer stories. We stopped off for chips to soak up some of the drink, fragrant steam rising from the wrappers to fill our noses as we walked. Then the guitar riff off “Welcome to the Jungle” started coming from Tommy’s pocket.
‘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. All right, you do that and I’ll see you first thing tomorrow.’ He thumbed the phone off and jammed it back into his pocket.
‘Aye, two folk 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.’
‘Just think of it as 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.’
‘I’ll give you a bell tomorrow aye? I still need to sort out this kilt fitting for the pair of us.’
‘Aye do that. I’ll be in about half six,’ he started 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 shook her head. ‘Why can’t I meet a single guy like you – I only ever seem to end up with arseholes.’
‘You barely even know me. 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 lose it. Maybe you two have been together for so long she’s forgotten.’
The distance between us had shrunk considerably. My neck felt warm and alcohol tainted blood was rushing to my head in spurts. She put her hands around my waist.
‘Listen, 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?’
‘Of course, I find you attractive. I’m not blind. Any guy would consider himself lucky to be with 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’re going to be working together every day – it would be impossible – not to mention really awkward don’t you think?’
She was giving me the big wide innocent eyes. 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.
‘You’re right,’ she sighed. ‘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.’
‘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. ‘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.
‘Al, long time no see. How’s your life?’ Tommy asked. He reached over and poured hot water into my coffee mug. We were in his office.
I shrugged. ‘I’ve had better days to tell you the truth.’
I took a sip of the coffee; the hot bitter liquid scalded my tongue. ‘I think Karen and me are going to split up.’
Tommy’s mug froze halfway to his mouth. ‘What the hell are you talking about? You pair are the most normal couple I know. What’s happened?’
I took a deep breath. Tommy and me had been mates for years but there was just some stuff you didn’t talk about if you’re a bloke. I had come this far though. ‘You know how we’ve been trying for kids?’
‘Aye. Well, no, not really – but I had assumed you were. Actually, I’m surprised there hasn’t been after all this time.’
‘Well that’s just it – we have been trying since a couple of years after the wedding.’
‘You shooting blanks pal?’
‘The doctor says my sperm count is a bit on the low side but I am fertile thank you very much Mr Sensitive.’
‘Keep your hair on, I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘Whatever. Anyway, we’ve been going for that IVF treatment but we’re almost at the end of our last cycle now and still nothing.’
‘Doesn’t this kind of thing bring couples closer together?’
‘Maybe at first but the longer it’s gone on the less we seem to be communicating. The way I see it marriage is a bit like a car.’
‘Eh? I don’t follow you mate.’
‘Well, when you buy a car, you wash it and polish it all the time to keep it looking good, then after a while you get a bit complacent and maybe only wash it once a month. On the surface everything looks all right, a few scuffs here maybe, but underneath it all there’s this slow corrosion bubbling away under the surface, eating away at the bodywork.’
‘So what you’re saying is your marriage is like a rusty old motor?’
‘Basically, yeah. I mean, when we’re with other people we pretend that everything’s normal but when we get home again we don’t really talk to each other anymore. Every time we get to the end of another IVF cycle we seem to pull a little bit further apart. It’s like, I don’t know, like we’re exhibits in some bloody museum of marriage, going through the motions for the benefit of the public.’ I drained the last few dregs of coffee and stared at the brown sludgy residue coating the bottom of the mug.
Tommy put his mug down and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. ‘You know Alan, for a smart guy you can be incredibly stupid sometimes.’
‘Well, you’re sitting there telling me your marriage is about to fail its MOT and it seems to me that you’re missing the blindingly obvious.’
‘It’s not me you need to be telling all this to, it’s Karen.’
He was right.
Finally, over breakfast one morning I decided to take the plunge.
‘We need to talk, ‘I said.’
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