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How to Fight Loneliness

By: JDG Chambers on the 17th April 2010 at 2:26pm

Life - Short story - Humour

 

 

First attempt: Wayne Rooney. Second attempt: Steven Gerrard. Third attempt: Andy Townsend. Jay’s fourth attempt looked like a Jamie Redknapp in his bedroom cupboard mirror. Progress of sorts, except premiership football was not on his mind when he began his quest to fasten a respectable knot in his tie. Jay would have been happy with David Beckham’s knot-to-collar ratio. It exemplified style and slender disregard for oversized sporting heritage. But Becks must have had private tuition, a clip-on, or maybe his wife tied it for him.

Who was he to judge, Jay frowned, undoing his stubborn half-Windsor for a fourth time. His fifth cub-scout effort tied another Andy Townsend knot around his neck. Now he was going backwards. It was hopeless. And his face looked ridiculous as he returned the desperate concentration of the twenty-seven-year-old man in the mirror. His mouth hung open and his tongue was trying to touch the tip of his nose. His body looked no better, dressed in black socks, white shirt and his red and white striped cotton underpants.

Jay threaded the 100% silk through the loop lassoed around his neck and pulled it towards the floorboards. His tongue moved around in the mirror like a cobra dancing to the tune of an Indian snake charmer. And the result of all that magic was…not even a knot. The tie unravelled when Jay tugged on the big tail. In his efforts to slim down he had failed to wrap sufficient loops around the small tail to form a textbook knot.

Momentary anticipation turned to anguish over and over again. He pulled knots apart in the mirror with the haste he used to tear open packs of football stickers as a young boy. The albums remained in plastic pockets under his bed in his parents’ house in west Wales, but he wanted few souvenirs of this football team.

Keep cool, he told himself, try again. Right over left, around the back, around again and bring up through the neck. Pull the big tail through the loop to form the knot and tighten. Lucky number seventeen had to be his final attempt. Jay had to be happy with a half-Rooney. Otherwise, he risked being late for his meeting.

Tying together his grey suit and his white M&S shirt - as it were, Jay was counting on his new racing green tie to help him stand out. Not everyone can wear green, or so they told him in the columns of the magazines She used to subscribe to. According to the last issue he had read, consulting first - as he always liked to do - the thermometer of what’s hot, what’s in, and what’s up for that month, versus the out-of-favour, the down-and-out, and the ‘so last season’, green looked set to be the ‘in’ colour of the summer, ‘in a big way’.

Jay settled on a tie to begin with. By gradually phasing the colour in, he figured he’d gage the stares of the tattooed man on the Clapham omnibus before shelling out £19.99 for the peeled-cucumber jeans from H&M.

He missed Her glossy magazines. He missed their direction. He missed their insider tips. He missed them with his tea. He missed them on the toilet. Even if the articles, the promotions, the advertisements and the odd free gift did aggressively target women, he missed them now they were gone.

She used to buy them like She used to date him. She continued to buy them whilst She no longer dated him. Jay had become ‘used’. Jay had become past tense. Jay’s subscription had not been renewed. Who wants to read about that shit anyway, he thought with childish affront. The answer was he did.

‘Top Ten Tips For Looking Hot This Summer’. ‘Take Our All New Dating Quiz’. ‘How To Tell If YOUR Man Is Cheating on YOU!’ Jay recognised the article in the February issue of Fashionista, the ‘Spring Cleaning’ edition, as the originator of the fresh start, the clean break and the ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ platitudes that peppered Her speech in the kitchen of Her Docklands flat. He had come around wearing the grey suit to take Her out for a kiss-and-make-up dinner.  She had her reasons. She said they were valid reasons.

 The grey suit was six months old. It had been his last Christmas present from Her. Also the first but Jay preferred to be sentimental.

Grey instantly became his best suit. At Her behest, the skinny-fit trousers were hemmed to the length of his own inside leg, and she paid the extra thirty quid for the jacket to brought into his waist in accession to the pins the failed acupuncturist had stabbed him with in the store.

She said he looked handsome. She said Grey suited his wintery-blonde hair and pale grey-blue eyes, and the fitted lines complimented his gym-toned physique. Lacking a tan, Jay had read another article in Fashionista that said he should be wary of too many light colours washing out his complexion, but She was adamant a bright tie would bring the combination to life.

His former first choice, his plain black suit, became his second best suit. It was also his only other suit. And thus far, the black ensemble had witnessed the ups and downs of 2009 from the inside of his cupboard, zipped up like a war casualty in a three quid body bag out of the Argos catalogue. Again, she was right, he needed to update. Blacky was his first suit. Blacky was his fat suit. Better than any old photograph, Blacky reminded him of the weight he wanted to forget.

The job Jay succeeded in getting last August felt like an appropriate swansong for the aging suit. The summary paragraph at the end of the obituary could say Blacky had ‘a good run’ - including the funeral of Jay’s great uncle, the wedding of his cousin and his graduation - before it then went on to mention his survivors: one grey suit, six-months old.

Slimmer grey trousers sat on his hips without the need for a belt bored with a new hole through the leather. Jay slipped his arms into the grey jacket, pleased the cuffs stopped at his wrists instead of extending to his thumbnails. Sitting on the bed to fasten his shoelaces he chose to forget about his humongous tie knot. He moved around his bedroom with elegance. He looked good. He felt confident and he was ready to go.

Jay picked up his man-bag in the hallway and pirouetted out of his front door, sliding his hands down the banister as he leapt clear of the wooden flight of stairs taking each step five at a time.

Banging the front door behind me, he clipped his heels along the flag-stoned front garden and hopped over the partially sunken railway sleeper, which propped up the sloping iron gate. Jay felt good announcing his arrival on to the pavement with unusual bonhomie. Pity there were no other people around to hear him stepping out.

Four storey terrace houses lined each side of his residential street and most houses had been split into six apartments: one flat in the basement, four above ground, including Jay’s first floor flat at number 32, and a studio flat squeezed into a Bertha Mason attic up top. Bumper-to-bumper cars parked with one wheel in the residents-only spaces and one wheel up on the curb created a narrow one-way street. On the pavement, the council’s proprietary trees grew emaciated in metre-squared roadside patches of cigarette-butt soil.

Following the gentle slope of the street in the direction of Bethnal Green tube station, the sun shone behind the shadow of imposing cricket stump council housing, the birds croaked lead vocals to the background hum generated by the traffic roaring along Roman Road - twenty family saloons and a white van away - and the wafts of indistinguishable curry spices began a daily battle to overpower the air, reassuring Jay that today the world meant to behave itself.

He turned right on to Roman Road and passed by a takeaway selling own-brand southern fried chicken. He waved at the cobbler already busy in his front office unlocking phones and he made a mental note to use the laundrette promising one-hour dry cleaning.

Carrying his wallet and his phone in his bag meant the faultless lines of his jacket and trousers cast an encouraging silhouette in each car window he secretly glanced at on his way past. Jay caught his reflection in the façade of a bus stop advertising glossy hair shampoo. He walked purposely towards it pleased by what he saw. His body looked trim in the advert, which made him smile. Today’s meeting would be his big chance, Jay felt sure of it as he stepped to the side to avoid walking into his reflection in the bus stop and hurried along the forecourt of the fire station, pleased that his trousers sat on the tops of his shoes without kicking out like flares and his fastened jacket didn’t blow out like a parachute to hinder his enthusiastic progress against the light breeze.

 

 

§

 

Mr Gupta had taken the lead during each of their previous meetings with LSD, five in total, every Tuesday morning for the last month and a half. Letting the senior man ask the questions allowed Jay to act as an observer, standing back, feeling his way around, building in confidence and slowly working his way up to actually speaking. The way he saw it, he shouldn’t jump in straight away, blurt out the first thing that came to mind and risk coming across too ‘in your face’. The situation called for soft toes, up to a point.

Jay had decided it was time he said something. He had to be bold. He had to take a risk. He had to get his name out there or he would never get anywhere in life. It was all about confidence, and on the morning of the sixth meeting he felt his confidence building up inside of him. He had to sound confident. Once he started speaking he felt sure the rest would follow.

All he needed was a good opening line. That’s all anyone needs. An opening line unlocks the secret to human interaction. Jay had the line. He had prepared multiple lines for a plethora of social scenarios. Now he needed LSD to give him one of those openings.

Standing in front of the mirror all day yesterday, trying out his lines, putting on his suit, practising his knot, taking off his suit and walking around his flat wearing in his new pointy black winkle pickers, Jay could tell himself he could do nothing more. The rest he had to entrust to fate.

“Hey Satch” Jay said over the jingle of the cow-bell, which signalled his entrance into Gupta & Son Newsagents, Off-Licence, authorised Oyster card merchants and stockists of South African speciality food produce.

The newsagents shared its location on Cambridge Heath Road with immigration solicitors and a clothier running a successful sideline in multicoloured saris. Satch conducted most of his business with pedestrians coming in and out of the subway entrance to Bethnal Green tube station that lay directly in front of his shop.  

Jay moved into the area two years ago and was immediately drawn into the newsagents by the cruel and misleading large blue sticker dominating the glass shop window: ‘this is a PORN FREE newsagents’. After reading the sign up close, he managed to swallow his disappointment and become a frequent visitor to Gupta & Son, if never a spendthrift customer.

He would see Satch on five out of seven days in any given week, not necessarily Monday to Friday nor five days in a consecutive row, though he was reluctant to call him a friend. This he justified to himself because he had never seen Satch outside of the shop, unlike his proper friends whom he saw less often. Satch was like a pleasant colleague he only socialised with at work. He had never asked Satch to go for a beer with him, or catch a film at the cinema. But neither had Satch asked for that matter. Jay swore he would go for a beer if Satch were to ask him.

“Hey Jason, how is my favourite customer doing this morning?”

Satch insisted on using Jay’s full name. It had become his habit within minutes of seeing ‘Jason’ embossed in raised gold lettering on the front of Jay’s debit card. Satch could see it embarrassed him. Jay pleaded and argued and lobbied for his truncated moniker, giving up his protests when he finally realised his unease only increased his tormentor’s resolve.

The experience transported Jay back to school. He was surprised to have forgotten the playground survival lessons he had beaten into him. Back then, names did hurt him as much as sticks and stones and he never fought back. To avenge his full name as an adult, Jay went on the offensive. He called his ‘Satch’ when his real name is Sachin. But the knife failed to cut as deep. Or if it did, Satch never let it show. The sparring always remained in good humour despite the underlying trauma.

Being the thirty-five-year old unmarried nephew of the late ‘Son’ in Gupta & Son, Satch’s standing as the latest incarnation of ‘Mr Gupta’ also carried with it the burden of being the last surviving ‘Mr Gupta’. He had been summoned back from India by his dying uncle to run the shop. From his bedroom above the shop, his uncle told him to fold up his dating website and vodka importation business, settle his roots in England and start a family. Then one day he too could become the new owner, manager, shelf-stacker and Saturday morning work experience girl at Gupta & Son.

His uncle died within six months of making his promise and Satch did all four jobs in the shop without ever taking a single day off.

Finding a wife was proving to be more difficult. He once told Jay that he preferred ‘white girls,’ even asking Jay if he could set him up on a blind date. The conversation quickly turned to football when an elderly Indian lady walked into the shop, something forgettable incident in the recent North London derby, and the subject never did come up again. Needing to produce an heir to carry on the sign above the shop took over Satch in conversation. Jay had no prior experience of a man so broody.

Satch was always immaculately turned out in his everyday wardrobe of light cotton trousers, deck shoes, buttoned-down shirts and his signature bright coloured V-neck jumpers he draped over his shoulders like an all-weather cape. Jay swore he recognised the outfits from the leaflets and flyers that fell out of his Sunday papers, selling cotton-based summer clothing ‘as worn by the quintessential English gentleman’. Unashamedly erudite and forever flicking a wavy black fringe out of his eyes, Satch’s height appeared to be his only shortcoming. Stretching to five foot five in shoes, Jay tended to slouch in his friend’s company. 

“Good, good. How about you?” Jay replied, continuing to speak without waiting for a response. “Has she been in yet?”

“No, no, not yet, hold your horses. First things first, you must explain this fine looking suit - very much the dapper English gent.”

“Thanks.” Jay said dismissively. “It was a present from my ex. I’ve got a meeting later.”

“Oh, I see,” Satch replied, nodding his head sympathetically. “I thought you told me you were an architect?”

 “I did. I am. I mean, I do. I am an architect, that’s right.”

“I thought you told me you guys don’t have to wear suits? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you wearing a suit, in all the time we’ve known each other.”

“Did I say that?” Jay frowned. “I don’t remember. Anyway, you’re right, I don’t usually dress this smart, but I’m on my way to the office.”

“I thought you work from home?”

“I do,” Jay replied curtly, unsure of what Satch was getting at. “But as I said, I have a meeting.”

“Ah yes, quite right. Where are they based?”

“Who?”

“Your offices.”

“Oh…er…um…the City.”

“Where exactly?”

“What is this,” Jay snapped, “twenty questions?”

“Touchy, touchy, touchy,” he said wagging a finger at Jay.

“Push off,” Jay smiled, moving his fingers through the glossy magazines on the counter to see the celeb exclusive on the front of Fashionista.

The snorting noises emanating from Satch’s nose succeeded in getting Jay’s attention. Satch began tipping a clawed hand back and forth in front of his toothy smile like a rheumatic nursing home veteran shaking up a snow globe. Jay could tell a joke was on its way. Satch had an annoying habit of laughing hardest at his own jokes, often before he delivered the punch line, and today he was already amused by his own intimation. “Be honest with me,” Satch grinned, “you’re in court later aren’t you? What did you do hey, get a little drunk with your friends on the weekend?” Jay opened his mouth to respond.

“Hold it!” Satch cut in, extending his hand like an overly zealous lollipop man.

‘Hold what?’ Jay wondered. He wasn’t about to cross the road. Frozen bug-eyed with his back to the doorway, Jay waited for the shopkeeper to roll up a copy of The Times to kill a deadly house spider climbing all over the chewing gum rack.

Standing on his tiptoes, Satch gripped each side of the till for extra leverage and craned his neck over Jay’s shoulder. “Shit, LSD’s coming,” he said. “Quick…do something…hide!”

Satch ducked his head beneath the counter. Jay panicked. His feet froze. His eyes glared. His ears listened for the leper bell hanging above the door. No sound emerged. Marshalling his shoes he edged tentatively towards the fridge to his right full of cans of Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and Sprite, and bottles of normal Lucozade, Lucozade Orange and the new lemon flavour he kept meaning to try.

The amphitheatre of chocolate bars displayed its wares in front of him. Jay performed like he imagined an everyday customer would do, hovering his pointed right index finger over the top row of Snickers, Twixs, Kit-Kats and Mars Bars. He had no intention of buying anything. He rarely ate breakfast before midday and he certainly didn’t let himself eat chocolate bars, not anymore, not after all that effort. But he had to look busy. He had to look like he wanted to buy something. Otherwise, what reason did he have to be in the shop? Jay hoped LSD didn’t want to buy any sweets.

“Good morning,” Satch said to LSD as he sprang up from behind the counter with a beaming smile.  “How do you do? How’s my favourite customer this morning?” Already envying Satch his myriad opportunities to meet new people, Jay shook his head at his fair-weather friend’s shameless pragmatism.

“Hi there,” she replied, sounding blasé, relaxed, unaffected, completely at ease with Satch’s ludicrously over the top reception. “Fifteen pounds, please.” It might be her accent, Jay thought. On women, Welsh accents always did if for him. The resilient chirpiness reminded him of home. On men, he could take it or leave it, unless the accent was particularly thick, and on TV, then it became slightly embarrassing.

Glancing to his left Jay watched LSD hand over her debit card and an Oyster card with the familiarity of a regular customer. He had to accept that only he felt on edge. Only he was third wheeling a one-to-one commercial transaction. Only he lurked in the corner of a shop not big enough to lurk in. And his impression of an indecisive person trying to buy a chocolate bar needed work.

Consistently pretending not to notice him, a laudable impression Jay formally attributed to nerves, shyness or even playing hard to get, the conduct of LSD’s assured, professional and strictly over-the-counter dealings with Satch invited him to rethink his interpretation of the ‘signs’. Perhaps her impression of indifference could be the real thing, he conceded, genuine lack of interest rather than run-of-the-mill feminine aloofness. Having never spoken to LSD before, she was making it difficult for him to be certain, either way.

But to look at, Jay knew LSD really well…in profile. He knew how she liked to tuck her dark brown hair behind her right ear when she wanted to concentrate. He knew her confused expression when her raised eyebrow rippled tramlines across the side of her forehead. He knew her long lashes blinked faster than his. He knew the subtle curve of half her nose, the mole on her neck, and the dimple on her cheek when she giggled and shook her head.

The dimple appeared each time Satch handed over the chip-and-pin machine and asked her if she wanted ‘any of her cash back’. As long as she kept laughing Jay knew Satch would keep repeating his ‘joke’. 

On the occasion of their first meeting six weeks ago, Jay had been stood at the counter saying his goodbyes to Satch and tucking a newspaper under his arm when she first came into the shop and stood to his right-hand side, the only time Jay let this happen. He considered the left-hand side of his face to be superior to his right. When Jay collected his paper the following day - at approximately the same time he remembered venturing out the day before - LSD never materialised.

After careful probing, Satch told him she came into the shop every Tuesday to top up her Oyster card.  Satch went on to tell him her first name began with an L, her middle name began with an S, and her surname was Doon. Her plastic also said she remained a Miss. As a willing beneficiary of this invasion of privacy, Jay had to stop Satch when he looked ready to tell him her 16-digit credit card number as well.

Miss Doon. Miss L S Doon. Miss LSD. LSD quickly became their code word for her. Not much of a test for the boffins at Bletchley Park. Nor did it prove prudent to drop into everyday shoptalk, but LSD caught on in spite of the negative side effects. Unfortunately, without more to go on, Jay knew it would be difficult to find her on Facebook.

As Jay watched LSD collect her debit card from Satch, return it to her purse, place her purse in her handbag and accept the Oyster card in its own plastic wallet, he continued to molest the melting chocolate bar he held in his hands. Decision time. He knew she would be leaving the shop soon. Her business was done. He knew he would have to act. He had to do something. He had to be bold.

Checking the minutes of that first meeting when LSD surprised him at the counter, he knew she had an equally beautiful left eye, another charming dimple, a similarly well-sculpted eyebrow and more hair on the other side of her head. Only the mole on her neck was unique to the right side view of her face. And if he didn’t act soon he would lose both halves of her delightful profile. His mind raced, but his feet and his arms and his mouth remained stubbornly locked in position, wary to repeat the criminal feats of the previous week. Dating is impossible these days, he thought, as he waited for her to make her move.

 

§

 

For their fifth meeting on the second business day of last week, Jay arrived late and met LSD’s smile on the way out of the shop. He was instantly relieved to see her entire nose, her two eyes, her two dimples and her two eyebrows work together as a team as pleasingly as they did on their own. But almost as suddenly, he realised the same reconstituted face was leading the rest of her body away from him in a rush towards the red and blue of the London Underground sign.

Prompted to forgo his newspaper, Jay flapped the briefest hello and goodbye to Satch and followed in LSD’s footsteps, striding across the pavement, leaping down the steps of the subway, marching into the tube station, digging his wallet out of his back pocket, slamming the black leather against the yellow pad, jumping through the opening gates - as he always did, never trusting them to stay open long enough, ricocheting down the second set of steps, and pushing his way onto the overcrowded westbound platform of the Central Line.

Unable to give her up, Jay nudged past increasingly aggravated, hot-looking commuters huffing disapproval for the delay, for the crowds, for the 48-hour heat wave, and now for the ill-mannered commuter elbowing past them, but he couldn’t let himself get too close.

He joined the back row of a team of bodies scrummaging behind a front row of professional commuters. The bruising props and hookers had long since worked out where the train doors opened on the platform. Looking to his left, Jay could see LSD stood in the midst of a similar scrum taking off her suit-jacket to keep cool.

Drawing on his recent experience, her dark-blue pin-stripe suit looked expensive. Hugging her skin in all the right places, her trousers encouraged his eyes to follow the curve of her small behind and cut in where the tops of her slender thighs began. A fitted white blouse fitted around a promising bosom. Jay had no comment on her height, neither short enough to stare nor tall enough to take a picture on his camera phone.

But the suit, the hair, the train, they all pointed towards a job in the City. He looked down to her shoes, the one missing piece of the jigsaw. He prepared himself for the disappointment of a pair of white, frumpy, commuter running trainers. Phew, he thought, high heels, a sensible height. Okay, she has to be safe, but high heels all the same. She must be important. She doesn’t have time to change. She doesn’t even have the time to slip off a pair of ballet pumps. Talk about hardcore!

Squeezing into the middle of the train and vying for space with dangling arms and armpits, Jay kept an eye on the top of her head. Batting away accidental stranger eye contact and the substrata of sea sick bodies cast adrift by discriminately ergonomic ceiling hand rails, Jay’s body bumped and bobbed around the carriage whilst his eyes remaining fixed on LSD.

Without a free paper to read, or a shoulder to read over, or any space to do anything other than stand upright with one arm raised like a Queen’s guard waiting to ask Her Majesty a question, he tried to guess the job she did in the City. She looked too smart to be in HR, she was too young and dressed too well to be a ranking policewoman, and she was too feminine to be a banker. Perhaps she was a lawyer or a management consultant, he thought, as the train pulled into the next stop, Liverpool Street Station, by which time Jay had run out jobs he knew people did in the City.

When the doors opened, the top of her head made a push for the exit. Alighting on to the crowded platform, Jay was unprepared for the speed of her step-aerobics up the escalators and her bar-queue slalom through the bottleneck gates. Pushing more legitimate commuters out of the way, he watched her race past the fruit-sellers inside of the station, mount the steps out of station two at a time, and turn right towards Upper Crust. He lost sight of her amongst the crowds on the main concourse.

Jay paused beside the fruit-sellers. He could continue to chase her or he could go home. Or he could speculate on where she might work. He imagined her without her clothes: the smart suit, the fitted blouse, and the serious heels. Even then, he felt certain she didn’t work in Upper Crust selling baguettes, French mustard and jambon to East Anglian day-trippers. Neither did she suit selling tampons, after-sun and a rival sandwich-based meal deal from Boots. Nor ties from the Tie Rack; endless ties, and in winter perhaps some gloves. Jay systematically ruled out WHSmiths, M&S, and The Body Shop. He used to be a loyal customer of Burger King, but no one who served him had ever looked like her. In fact, LSD didn’t fit in with any of the concessions in Liverpool Street Station. She worked in the City proper. He was sure of it. But he needed to find out where?

Jostled by harried commuters and an indecipherable assault of fruit prices ringing in his ears, Jay realised he couldn’t stay put. Turning around to head for the eastbound platform of the Central line, he decided there was always next Tuesday. Or tomorrow. By not finding out the exact nature of her employment, he had inadvertently saved some excitement for later in the week. It would give him the excuse he needed to get dressed in the morning.

On the tube ride home, he wondered what LSD did for the other four days of the week. Her figure suggested early bird sessions at the gym. Her face implied munificence towards inner-city children, perhaps an early morning volunteering role with struggling readers. Except the suit told him she arrives extra early at the office to finish turning around the document her boss needs to take a look at before the Helsinki drafting meeting on Friday. Jay had overheard someone else say it on the train. Whatever it meant, it sounded plausible.

 

§

 

In his head, he had planned to talk to LSD at meeting number six. A casual shop acquaintance would then blossom in to a telephone number, a date, a second date, a relationship, a girlfriend, a fiancé, a wife and who knows what else…but whilst LSD talked evasively to Satch about her plans for the weekend, Jay looked down upon his heavy tie-knot with a bulldog scowl.

By keeping LSD talking Satch was holding up his end of the bargain. All Jay had to do was raise the courage to say something to her himself. He had done all of his homework. He had planned what he was going to say. He had done so much preparation he had PowerPoint slides projecting his anticipated conversation on the inside of his skull.

Why then was he holding a Kit-Kat in his hand formulating a revised plan to break into their conversation and ask Satch for the price he had just peeled off the chocolate wrapper?

Raising his finger like a shy kid in class, Jay tried to get Satch’s attention. He opened and shut the door on the fridge. He kicked the skirting board below the counter. He coughed. Satch looked over at Jay.  Before he could find out his price, LSD said her goodbyes to the shopkeeper and walked out of the shop. Jay gawped at his friend. He hadn’t said a single word to her, again!  

“Get after her,” Satch encouraged him.

“I can’t, not again.”

“Forget that. Seize the day. Live for the moment. Be bold.”

For the second time in seven days, Jay found himself charging out of Gupta & Sons in hot pursuit of LSD.  

Enjoying the benefits of last week’s practice run, he caught up with her at the bottom of the first flight of steps. Deciding to bide his time, he knew he would get his big (second) chance when she paused at the gates.

What would he say? ‘Excuse me, I think you might have dropped this?’ What might she have dropped, he asked himself, looking around the floor of the station for a useful prop? Discarded one-day travel cards? She won’t be interested in them. She isn’t homeless. She has an Oyster card. She’s a fully paid up member of the Transport for London community.

Jay looked in his hands. A four finger Kit-Kat in bright red packaging looked back at him. Great, he thought, a petty larceny charge to add to his professional stalking. Fuck it, the Kit-Kat could work. Girls love chocolate.

Besides, Jay only needed the Kit-Kat for his opening line. After that, she could throw it away. Would it really be that rude, he wondered? He wasn’t about to accuse her of dropping a Yorkie or a king-sized Snickers. Kit-Kats are light. Kit-Kats can be shared with friends. Kit-Kats are the nation’s favourite.

He missed his chance to find out. Already holding her Oyster card in hand, LSD skipped through the gates whilst Jay scrambled to find his wallet he had hitherto stored away in his man-bag to protect his lines. The more furious he searched the more accomplished the wallet became at hide and seek. The bag didn’t have any secret compartments did it? Got it. It’s fine. Don’t panic. You can still catch her on the other side of the gates, or down on the platform, or in the carriage of the train. The chocolate bar still has a chance.

‘SEEK ASSISTANCE’. Again: ‘SEEK ASSISATANCE’. Again: ‘SEEK ASSISTANCE’. ‘SEEK ASSISTANCE, SEEK ASSISTANCE, ‘SEEK ASSISTANCE’. Shit! Every time he touched his wallet on the Oyster pad, the red warning light flashed up advising him to seek assistance.

Jay was following a girl with a mystery first name; he had only found out her surname and initials via illicit retailer collusion bordering on skimming and quite possibly dating fraud; he had never even spoken to LSD, ergo, he had no intention of enrolling anyone else in his crime.

He considered clambering over the gates, or he could crawl under the gates; which would be easier, he deliberated frenetically. The pros and cons of being caught by British Transport Police thrashed about in his mind. Would they accept his romantic raison d'être? They would on the Paris metro, he decided. Lovers can hack their sweethearts to pieces with the full protection of the French legal system.

 Ultimately his conclusions would be irrelevant. Jay knew he wasn’t going to do either and LSD was already long gone. ‘Urry up mate’, a deep voice resonated over his shoulder like a brass instrument. Stepping to one side, Jay kicked himself for not topping up his Oyster card. That was his fault. Since he had lost his job he had become too cheap.

Scraping his soles and kicking his toes across the scratchy ticket-strewn floor, Jay touched his wallet on the yellow circular pad at the bottom of the self-service machines, selected twenty pounds pay-as-you go - he wouldn’t be thwarted again - inserted his debit card, typed his pin into the keypad and touched out.

Ascending to the top of the ten steel-capped steps leading out of the station, he saw Satch bending down in front of a white plastic Evening Standard board. The A3 sized paper he struggled with in his hands carried the first headline of the day, screaming out in capitalised black marker pen: ‘MISS UK DRUG MULE’. Jay turned the other way and headed for the traffic lights.

Satch looked up at him. “Look who it is,” he shouted, “my favourite customer has returned. That was a quick meeting.”

Jay stopped and turned around. He walked over to the newsagents reluctantly. “Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”

“That was a quick meeting,” Satch repeated.  

“Erm…yeah…it didn’t happen. Maybe next time.” Here,” Jay said, handing the Kit-Kat to Satch, “I accidentally borrowed this from you earlier.” 

“Much obliged,” Satch replied, standing up to accept the Kit-Kat.  He noticed Jay’s spirits had taken a sharp nose-dive in the intervening ten minutes. “In case you’re interested…” he went on, pocketing the malleable chocolate bar in his sand coloured linen trousers, “…when I’m locking up I often see you-know-who coming past the shop carrying a few bags from Tesco Metro.” Satch pointed his hand over Jay’s shoulder. “You know the one down on Bethnal Green Road…?”

Jay looked at Satch askance. He placed his arm around his friend’s shoulder and smiled tentatively.  “Why’ve you never told me this information before?” he asked, pulling Satch’s head closer to his armpit. “Have you been holding out on me?” Satch tried to shake his head free of the arm-lock. Jay tightened his grip. “Are you interested in her as well?” Satch returned a dubious grin. “Do I need to begin worrying about competition?” Satch shrugged his shoulders. Letting him go, Jay offered his hand for Satch to shake. “I might catch you later then.”

“By the way,” Satch called out as Jay waited to cross the traffic lights on Cambridge Heath Road, which intersected with Bethnal Green Road where it became Roman Road, “I lock up at seven thirty.”

Raising his hand in final farewell, Jay ran across the road wondering whether Miss UK’s career had taken a turn for the worse or whether the shocking Evening Standard headline simply publicised the next in a long line of talent contests. 

 

§

 

Six months ago She bought Jay the new suit to encourage him to make a positive impression at work. It would do him good, She argued, to look smart once in a while. Given he usually wore jeans, a T-shirt, a blazer, and his K-Swiss trainers, he expected to get an invite to one of her corporate work events in due course.

Five months ago their argument lost its mettle when he lost his job, through no fault of his own he hastened to tell Her. Architects just happened to be the first luxury tossed overboard the sinking ship. Splashing about in the water with him, some of his friends had moved home to live with parents for the first time in ten years, some had moved into designing sandcastles in Australia or the Middle East, and some now worked in HMV.

Jay had rent to pay. His lease had nine payments left to make. For a month he tried to find another job, with no luck. Sure he rarely left the house. Sure he’d stopped shaving. Sure he’d stopped styling his hair in the morning or getting dressed, he couldn’t see the point. Sure his sex drive suffered and sure their sex life ground to a halt. It was a blip. A job would come along. He wasn’t just sitting on the couch all day like she implied. He had his laptop with him. He had the Internet. He was applying for jobs.

They never went out. He needed to save money. How about I move into your place, he suggested, on a temporary basis.

Four months ago She finished with him. She determined they wanted different things. She determined he had no ambition. She needed someone to take care of her. She said he couldn’t even take care of himself. She said he looked fat. She no longer found him attractive. That one really hurt. 

Spending another month on the couch, he still had his laptop, he still had the Internet, but he no longer applied for jobs. In addition to the results of his daily Google-porn searches, his other amusement came from watching the progress of his patchy beard begin to look more and more like reclaimed plughole hair had been pritt-sticked to the sides of his face. He couldn’t even grow a proper unemployed beard!

Subsistence constituted microwavable chicken curry, and oven pizza when he needed a break. If and when he took a shower or changed his T-shirt, Jay would see the body She had encouraged him to gradually build up at the gym rapidly slip away from him. Thoughts of digging out his black suit from the depths of his cupboard tormented his increasingly gloomy dreams. Thankfully, when he woke up the next morning, he had no job interviews to get dressed up for.

Three months ago Jay set up his own architecture practice. He ‘decided’ to work from home to save money whilst he was getting started. It was either that or set up shop in his local Starbucks, and he didn’t have the money to buy the cheapest shot of espresso everyday, or the inclination to look like a loser. Nor could he abide the white noise of all the other losers chattering away on their laptops.  

During the day, his first floor flat was quiet. Mainly residents’ cars crept reluctantly out of their hotly contested parking spaces. No primary school playground teaming with screaming children set out to disturb him. And his mobile workshop - his laptop and his wireless connection - meant he could work in any room of the house.

More often than not, his mobile workshop gravitated towards the kitchen table. With no spare room to convert into his office/library, the kitchen table beat both the couch and his bed hands down. Basing himself in his bedroom with his laptop and reliable Wi-Fi, Jay knew his work would only go one way and his eyes would be drawn to only one genre of website. It would not be BBC online, and the couch would be no better

Start at nine, half-an-hour for lunch, finish at seven; over nine hours a day, almost fifty hours a week. Screw the European Working Time Directive!

Except sharing his workspace with old newspapers, opened and unopened mail, pizza flyers and the cardboard-box remains of yesterday’s pizza delivery, Jay’s ideal working week soon became less than ideal. 

Compounded by his landlord watching too many property makeover programmes, knocking through too many interior walls and creating a ‘modern, well-lit, spacious apartment with an open-plan kitchen-lounge-diner’, Jay also had to contend with his couch being in plain view, his stereo he could play at any volume - during business hours, the plasma TV he had bought last July as a reward for completing six years of further education, and a box set of series one to six of The Sopranos, which he had tried to ration to one episode a night, but frequently found himself settling for a one disc a night compromise.

Everyday Jay battled the same urges and distractions he used to defeat in the similarly open plan offices of his former employers, The JRGH Partnership, of St John Street, Clerkenwell. But during his regular employment, the thirty extra pairs of eyes belonging to his hawkish colleagues ably assisted him with his abstinence. At home, left to marshal his own devices, on-line news, on-line networking, on-line gambling, on-line shopping, and on-line porn tested his resolve. Even the kettle proved a worthy adversary, which Jay surrendered to seven times a day on average, mixing up tea and coffee with the odd hot chocolate in the evening.

In reality, his workday morning began at eight-thirty when he picked up a newspaper from Satch. Jay couldn’t afford to waste ninety pence on a newspaper either, not when he could get the same news online for free, but the money bought him a reason to leave the house at least once a day and a much-needed excuse to stalk LSD.

At nine he tidied up the kitchen table. Next he made his first cup of tea, checked his profile, checked his emails and checked the online news, before turning his mind to actual work at nine-thirty. Skim-reading the newspaper with a second cup of tea, he checked his emails again around eleven. Eleven-thirty he boiled the kettle and drunk a third cup at his computer. At twelve-thirty he took an hour for lunch and reread the interesting newspaper articles in more depth. With his after lunch coffee he would re-check his profile - nothing to update, and watch Neighbours on the TV.

During his afternoon tea break, he would attempt to complete the ‘easy’ crossword in the newspaper, very rarely succeeding, and at five, he would have his fifth cup of tea to coincide with Deal or No-Deal. Finishing work at six-thirty, Jay checked his emails again with a final brew to avoid drinking too much caffeine too close to bedtime. If he ever got the chance to design a flat specifically for home working, Jay promised to start by properly apportioning workspace.

After buying an off-the-shelf company, ‘Company 12,376’, Jay changed the name with Companies House to ‘Young, Olsen, Design & Architecture’. As a trading name, it enabled Jay to hold himself out as an architect before completing his Part III.

Taking his lead from Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Jay partnered his surname Young with Olsen - a fictional Swedish surname - to make the business sound more professional to potential clients. Hinting at a Scandinavian design-cool edge, the name also disguised the unprofessional reality of him sitting alone in his underpants at his kitchen table in his one bedroom flat tapping away on a single laptop.

As an added benefit, the acronym also looked cool on his business cards, which Jay had printed for free on his first day of trading, provided the print company could place their logo on the back.

Little else happened on day one besides taking receipt of his off-white business cards with a thin sliver of silver underlining his title of ‘Chief Executive & Creative Director’. The next day, Jay set about designing his website. His first choice domain name: www.YODA.com had already gone, not surprisingly, so he chose to register the full name instead, Young, Olsen, Design & Architecture.

Typing in the full name his website came up first. Typing in the acronym Jay was content to be hit number 19 on page two of a UK specific Google search.  The search results higher up on the list were all links to sci-fi websites.

 The YODA postal address completed the illusion. Jay paid fifteen pounds a month for letterbox-sized premises at 44 Goswell Road, Clerkenwell, EC1Y 2AX, a stones throw from The JRGH Partnership. Included in the price, the company letting out the Central London postal address to him would also forward company mail to his home address in Bethnal Green.

Jay already had all the design programmes he needed on his laptop. His old mentor at The Bartlett provided him with pirate copies of AutoCAD, Photoshop, and CS4, and his ex-employees, The JRGH Partnership, had unwittingly gifted him a copy of Rhino. All YODA needed now was some work.

For the last two months Jay had been concentrating on winning a commission. One year out of university with six months work experience and few genuine contacts of his own, entering open competitions provided him with the obvious - and only - place to start. As first round submissions were usually anonymous, Jay stood a chance of getting to the second round, at least.

Jay worked on two inaugural submissions in tandem. The first design was for a temporary bandstand to tour London’s Royal parks, beginning by the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park and ending in sight of the observatory in Greenwich. The second design was for an entirely new build on a brown-field site on the Kingsland Road, which Hackney council had earmarked for the new Dalston Art and Design Museum.

His idea for both, his own original idea - rarer than it sounds, and unashamedly recycled for each submission, came to him whilst he sat between dollops of bird shit on a steel bench outside the Tate Modern, notebook and mechanical pencil in hand, sketching out ideas for what would become his third submission.

Panting, wheezing and clutching at his chest, for five minutes Jay had watched a former jogger bent over on the Thames-side walkway in front of Sir Christopher Wrens’ St Pauls Cathedral and Sir Norman Fosters’ Millennium Bridge. Shifting to the edge of the bench keeping his hands by his side to skirt around the bird shit, Jay was crippled by the indecisiveness of wanting to offer his assistance and the metropolitan fear of overstepping the stranger-mark.

Stalled half-sitting half-standing as the jogger gasped for breath, Jay continued to watch the man grapple with the left shin of his dazzling white running socks, which he had pulled half-way up his leg to cover what appeared to be an electronic-tag-sized bulge above his ankle.

For each submission, Jay planned an ‘L’ shaped structure designed to look like an asthma inhaler resting on its side. Whilst the museum would have solid walls and the bandstand would have a whalebone shell, both designs would house a steel and glass interior casing to represent the drug canister.

 Entering the structure through the hole at the bottom, patrons of the arts would be hit with a breath of temporary relief similar to asthmatics. The uncapped lid turned up on its side and positioned in front of the main entrance would house a ice-cream kiosk and deckchair rental business for the travelling bandstand, and the ticket office, shop, studio and miscellaneous administrative offices for the design museum.

Jay’s preferred choice of colour for both submissions was two shades of Ventolin blue: dark blue for the kiosk/ticket office and light blue for the main body of the structure, with transparent panels positioned at seemingly arbitrary intervals in the drug-canister to provide provocative sightlines of the band and/or the sky. That being so, in the park, against the backdrop of the trees and the lake, he could see how two shades of Becotide brown might be a more popular choice.

In Dalston, Jay intended the inhaler-shaped museum to butt up against the heavy traffic on the Kingsland Road as a loud social comment on the pollution inhibiting the City. In the park, the subtle open-framed bandstand would emphasise the need for fresh air away from the urban sprawl.

He didn’t expect to win, nor did he. ‘Dear all, with regret, I am writing to inform you that your design proposal was not shortlisted by our judging panel…’ Both rejection emails utilised the never helpful hyperbolic letdowns he recognised from his earlier round of job applications: ‘exceptionally high standard of entries’; ‘exceeding all expectations’; ‘phenomenal interest’, ‘selecting a shortlist was not an easy matter’.

Assuming he could make it onto a shortlist, Jay knew the judging panel would inevitably look to his previous designs in reaching their decision. Thus he knew he needed more experience. In fact, he needed some experience. Any experience!

Puffed up with 3D visuals and renders of past projects he had been working on at The JRGH Partnership, the experience section of the YODA website boasted designs for a folly on a Buckinghamshire estate; a prep school annex in Chiswick; a One-Stop-Shop in Deptford, and beach huts along the Brighton sea front. An impressively busy six months to show off to his parents perhaps, but given his junior position at the firm the judges would know that choosing door-handles to use on the beach huts would be the extent of Jay’s personal involvement with the project. If he was lucky, he might have designed the skylight to be used in the Buckinghamshire folly, but he wasn’t.

By supplementing the 3D visuals and renders with flashy slideshow photographs he’d taken of a stilt-house built into the hills above Christchurch, New Zealand, the view of Hong Kong Island from The Peak, the tenement houses across the Lower East Side of New York, or Peckham Library, south London (each building properly attributed to its rightful architect in the small print), Jay simply provided further evidence of his inexperience. He needed to win a proper commission, a YODA design, to add real experience to his website, to win other commissions, to gain more experience, and to break out of his Yossarian spin-cycle.

Largely a facsimile of the first two, the rejection email Jay received in response to his third submission to re-design the toilets in the members’ room at the Tate Modern - from Jeremy Frame, project manager - did go on to presume Jay would be ‘keen to learn about the winning design’, endeavouring to be in contact again once the winner had been decided. Filing the email in his submissions sub-folder, Jay knew being caught short on the sixth floor of the Tate Modern was as close as he’d come to showing an interest in the winning design. He certainly wasn’t going to be checking his emails at eight o’clock each morning for a follow-up email from Mr Frame.    

Before being let go by The JRGH Partnership, he had been working on a design for an underground garage and swimming pool extension in Primrose Hill, North London. He had earmarked the project for his Part III. Regretting this missed opportunity to complete his qualifications as an architect, and reeling from three rejected proposals in a row, Jay rushed together a guerrilla submission over three days and nights of a red-bulled weekend.

Using his trademark flash and a heavily unprofitable discount, the plan was to poach the commission from his previous employer. The client said no. It would be a huge risk to entrust the project to Jay alone, without his Part III. Jay accepted that. And when the six-storey town house hit the news as the most expensive property repossessed in the recession, he didn’t celebrate… that much, partly because his own luck had changed in the interim.

Unbeknownst to Jay, his mentor from The Bartlett had suggested him to the new owners of ‘The Haggerston Pie-Shop’, an East London bakery recently placed into receivership. The new owners planned to convert the bakery into a bar, keeping the same name for the Pie-Shop and issuing a minimal design brief stipulating Jay retain as many existing fixtures and fittings as possible.

Suspecting the owners’ wanted an imitation of the ‘so bad it’s good’ type venues in nearby Dalston, populated by ex-graduates from The Bartlett, the RCA, or the AA, killing time between signing-on, Jay figured the minimal brief also had something to do with the minimal budget. Hot for six-months, the Pie-Shop would probably die a slow, profitable death once the hype made its way into the Style supplement of The Sunday Times.

Amongst all the excitement, neither his mentor nor the owners deemed it necessary to inform Jay the commission would be unpaid. But the money wasn’t important. If and when the owners secured sufficient financing to implement his design, at least Jay could point to Pie-Shop as an example of his work.

Six weeks ago, Jay stood at the counter in Gupta & Son and became hooked on LSD. Since his membership remained valid for another four months, he started going to the gym again. He started getting dressed for work first thing in the morning: jeans, T-shirt, blazer, K-Swiss. To earn some money to pay the rent, and to repay the first of many favours he owed his mentor, Jay agreed to deliver a series of three lectures to undergraduates at the Bournemouth School of Art and Design; five hundred quid cash in hand, plus return economy train tickets, plus a reasonably priced lunch.

Today he had put on his grey suit especially for the occasion. Today he had panicked. Today he had blown his only project showing any real promise.

 

§

 

Re-entering his flat and dropping his keys and spare change on top of the radiator cover, Jay picked up one of his two fancy wooden coat hangers off the floor and hung his jacket and trousers on the back handle of his bedroom door. He put on a pair of board shorts and decided to leave his shirt on for now, loosening his tie but not taking it off. He would need to put his grey suit back on later, for continuity, when he went to Tesco. He needed to go to Tesco. He needed to buy something for his dinner. Everyone needs to eat, he figured, so he would need no excuse to be in there.

Lifting up his laptop from the floor beside his bed and opening up the screen, Jay pushed the on-button and walked over to the kitchen table carrying the booting up computer slowed down by all the pirated software.

The clock said it was five-to-ten. He was running late. Placing his laptop at the top end of the table, his father’s end - if he were to follow his friends back to his parent’s home, Jay grabbed the squeezy ketchup bottle he had used to polish off yesterday’s pizza crusts and returned it to the top cupboard next to the tins of tuna and tea bags.

Using the well-read pages of yesterday’s newspaper to wrap-up a growing collection of empty beer bottles assembled like bowling pins next to the sink, Jay cradled the bundle of moving-house style packages into the bin. The sink full of dirty dishes would have to wait. He wanted to get stuck into his new project while he felt the urge. As long as he had another project to focus his attention on Jay felt he should be okay. In the meantime, he could re-use the same mug and he could angle the kettle around the plates, the bolognaise-stained saucepan and the pasta-coloured plastic colander he always found difficult to get entirely clean after he had used it to drain spaghetti.

The previous Friday evening Jay had been sitting in front of the TV with his laptop reading about a new competition on the Architecture Society’s website. ‘Finally!’ he said aloud…to his empty living room-kitchen-diner, ‘The credit crunch could be doing me a favour.’

Between waiting for news of his submissions and waiting for new competitions to come on-line, Jay had become accomplished at waiting, and watching The Sopranos.

A leading investment bank in the City of London,’ the article read, ‘is inviting architects and designers to submit ideas to utilise floor space across a number of its offices in the capital, which have, for various reasons, recently become free of use. Due to the market sensitivity of this information the competition is being run on a no-names basis.

As he continued reading, Jay whittled down the list of banks he had seen on the recent news parade their cardboard box carrying ex-employees in front of the cameras like ants fleeing a burning nest.  

‘In response to the anticipated interest in the competition, applicants are asked to submit an initial design proposal setting out their idea (in no more than 300 words) via the link below by 31 July 2009. Late entries will not be considered. Stage 1 judging is strictly anonymous. Your contact details, company details and CV should be sent in a sealed envelope accompanying your design proposal.

Between trying on his suit, trying out opening lines and trying to tie his tie, Jay had been toying with a few ideas over the weekend. His first idea, leasing office space to several charities and good-causes at a reduced rate, sounded practical, tax-efficient, with oodles of corporate social responsibility, but he had dismissed it as the obvious idea incapable of winning him the competition.

His second, third and fourth ideas, an art studio, a music studio, and a dance studio, each sounded feasible, culturally commendable and a left-field use of space, but the mess, the music, and waltzing groups of dancers through an investment bank, lunging and stretching and pirouetting in skin-tight Ribena-coloured leotards, might be the distraction to bring the rest of the crumbling operation crashing down.

‘For stage 2,’ the article concluded, a short-list of eight candidates will be invited to inspect the space before submitting a scale 3-D model, final design proposal and single A4 page visualisations no later that 30 August 2009. For further information, including example 3-D visuals of the available space, please see the link below.’ 

Jay decided to develop his ninth idea: hot-desking. Plenty of people had recently lost their jobs, and like him, he figured a large number of those unemployed would look into starting their own business, or move into consultancy services, or freelancing. His idea would allow the self-employed to rent desks from the bank for a fee, whether daily, weekly or monthly, in exchange for using the office and some or all of its services to run their new businesses; a solution to the hazards of working from home, or from Starbucks, Apostrophe or Prêt A Manger.

In a downturn, Jay felt the strength of his idea lay in its low-priced roll-out-ability, as the Americans would say. The desks were already in place, so sparing a few tweaks once he had seen the actual specifications (if only to justify the large fee he intended to charge the bank), transforming his idea into reality would - like the Pie-Shop - require limited expenditure.

So far his skeletal proposal drew on his own experiences of working from home. His business already benefited from a snazzy and misrepresentative Central London postal address, but his productivity could benefit from leaving the house to go to work; his appearance could benefit from having to get dressed to go to work; his work could benefit from having a desk specifically set aside for working, and to avoid going crazy he could benefit from meeting people again on a regular basis. Jay needed the social interaction. He needed to talk to people. He needed to get out of the house again. Social networking websites had let him down…

Wary of overdoing it, Jay left out the bit about his love life, which could also benefit from some or all of the above, and his burgeoning porn addiction, and his new ‘colleagues’ on PartyPoker.com.

 Come to think of it, his love life was in a mess. Where did he expect to find another girlfriend? He couldn’t keep stalking random girls he took a fancy to, if only because LSD was the first time Satch had attracted anyone 'fanciable' into his ‘PORN FREE’ newsagents.

Come to think of it, She hadn’t been all that bad. Sure She was pushy. Sure She was high-maintenance. Sure She was a big reason why he hardly ever saw his friends. Sure She shouted a lot. Sure She was depressed. Sure She was angry. Sure She criticised him for messing up the bed covers, leaving the kitchen cupboard doors open and leaving drops on the toilet seat. Sure She waited for him to sit down on the settee before nagging him to take out the rubbish. But at one point, She must have loved him. Occasionally She did stick up for him.

Come to think of it, She had encouraged his career with the new suit. She was a great cook. She took care of herself and She looked great. She even helped him keep off the weight. Shit, he really missed Her. Shit, he wanted her back. Shit, now he couldn’t think about anything else.

Saving and shutting down the bank project, Jay closed his laptop. Eleven-twenty, nearly time for another cup of tea. Soon it would be lunchtime. Seven-thirty couldn’t come around quickly enough.

Too tired and too depressed to go to the gym, Jay took off his shirt - careful to keep the tie knot in one piece – and did fifty one sit-ups, thirty nine and a half press-ups, then collapsed horizontally on the couch, pressing play on the remote control, pleased that last night he had not finished off the final episode on disc three of series four of The Sopranos. 

Consulting the time on the TV, Jay calculated disc four, with a break for lunch and two breaks for tea, would see him through to Tesco-time.

He needed LSD to help him get over Her.

 

§

 

Arriving at the supermarket early, Jay walked each of the aisles with the objective of amassing an impressively cosmopolitan basket.

Carrying around salmon fillets, tinned anchovies, an avocado, fresh olives, fresh pasta, couscous, pine nuts, haloumi, a block of parmesan and fresh pomegranate juice, Jay had no idea what he would make for his dinner but he did feel confident that his basket would hold up to scrutiny cosying up next to hers on the supermarket tiles.

Walking past the checkout tills, Jay stopped to browse the top 20 chart of CDs and DVDs on sale at the end aisle nine, household cleaning products. He needed to give LSD time to arrive at the supermarket before returning to the ‘fruit & veg’ aisle to pick up the sweet potato, the artichoke, the box of cherry tomatoes, the miniature fish net of lychees, the bag of royal gala apples and the promotional punnet of raspberries he’d purposely forgotten first time around to give him an excuse for doing a victory lap of the supermarket.  

 Rounding the corner of ‘fruit and veg’, he raised his eyes instinctively towards the heavens. There she is! There she is! There she is! Satch was right, God bless him.

Holding her green basket like an expensive handbag, LSD examined a punnet of strawberries halfway up the aisle, holding the transparent plastic box up to the light before switching boxes. Already we have a shared interest in soft fruits, he thought, as he admired her profile lovelier than it had ever been.  Still in high heels, still wearing her suit, still in business mode, LSD was still making important decisions.

As Jay had come to expect from observing her over the last six weeks, LSD didn’t browse the shelves. She already knew the aisles she needed to visit. She already knew the items she wanted to purchase, skipping the dead weight and swiping products off the shelves without pausing to read the ingredients, check the sell-by-dates or ponder a recipe.

After a five-minute race around the supermarket, Jay stood in the same queue as LSD buffered by a single old lady gripping on to a tartan postman’s trolley. His forearms ached under the strain of his generously filled basket.

Transferring her shopping onto the conveyor belt, LSD’s basket of goods looked functional in comparison to his. Jay felt slightly let down. First up, two Weightwatchers meals-for-one, one lasagne, one spaghetti-bolognaise, buy two save a pound (Note to self: talk about last summer in Tuscany). Then Special K and two pints of skimmed milk (Note to self: avoid fat jokes, even at own expense. Read the clues: low-fat cereal, low-fat milk and low-fat meals all point to weight issues. No signs of it now. Perhaps bullying problem at school, so avoid memory lane. Stick to the present. Gym chat fine, she clearly works out. Remember to name drop ‘cardio-vascular’). Bio yoghurt (boring), mozzarella (definitely onto a winner with Italy), and a five pack of Crunchies (low-calorie count. Perhaps Kit-Kat idea would have worked).

Next up, a five pack of Wrigley’s Extra (minty-fresh breath, possible smoker, possible weight issue again. Good way to trick the appetite); underarm deodorant, extra silky (smooth, nice smell), and a six (plus two free) pack of supermarket own-brand toilet roll (don’t go there. Could use some myself but leave for another day, for appearances sake).

Rattling her empty basket until it fitted in with the pile of empties stacked below the conveyor belt, LSD paused to check the last minute temptations on display in front of the till. She picked up a copy of Fashionista and balanced it on top of the toilet roll. (Sweet! The magazines are making a come back. Don’t need Her after all). Jay smiled. LSD might be a classy sophisticate, but she still felt the need to purchase a magazine to cover up her less than stylish bumper pack of discount loo roll. The second thing they had in common!

Accepting the receipt in with her groceries, LSD collected her bags together and took off.  The clock began to tick.  In front of Jay, the white-haired buffer pulled a tin of spam out of her postman’s buggy.

Leaning over the conveyor belt - bang - she placed a ‘next customer’ marker down. Result, thought Jay, one tin of spam. She had excessive luggage for the weekly shop, but what did he care.

He spoke too soon. Moving slower than a human statue, the buffer leaned over into her buggy to pull out a tin of chunky soup, repeating the ordeal for individual tins of baked beans, corn, and sardines.  

Jay considered his options. He could leave his basket of shopping on the floor and run after LSD empty-handed, but catching up with her outside the supermarket with no produce might look suspect.

He tapped the old lady on the shoulder. “Can I help you at all?

“No! she barked at him, obliged by good manners to add a belligerent “Thank you”.

In frustration, Jay tipped his basket of cosmopolitan groceries into a heap behind her shitty tins. Startled by the noise, the middle-aged black lady sitting behind the till looked up at him. He smiled at ‘Margaret’, fours stars - a general of the supermarket checkout. At least Margaret appeared to understand his need for haste, swiping discounted tin after discounted tin through the scanner, touch-typing the numbers off the damaged barcodes, and mercifully giving the tannoy a wide-berth.

Jay wasn’t sure what the old lady planned to make for dinner either, but he wished she would hurry up The old lady started talking to the checkout woman. Don’t bother Margaret, he pleaded silently. Margaret doesn’t need to hear your story after a long day in the trenches. What’s she after, Margaret, a further discount?  An OAP discount? He felt like stepping in. They were not on the busses now.

Margaret pointed to aisle seven. Jay followed her finger to ‘Sauces, Soups and Spreads.  The miso soup should be there with the rest of the sushi packs, she said to the old lady.  Jay frowned at Margaret. What the hell? Old people don’t eat sushi. Margaret smiled at him, understanding his anguish. Jay smiled back. He wanted to let Margaret know he didn’t blame her for the hold up.

Tracking the old lady’s bone-idle progress towards aisle seven, Jay shared an eyebrow sigh with the fellow suit standing behind him, one suit to another, making a suit-based connection, swapping obsessions with time, expensive watches, nice suits and the old woman scuttling towards the sauces. ‘Fuck the raw fish,’ Jay felt like screaming into the tannoy, ‘Get back to the checkout and pay for your shitty tins. Time is money people!’

When Margaret finally handed Jay his receipt, he walked through the sliding doors gripping two plastic bags in each hand and put them down on the pavement outside the supermarket, using the pole of ‘no entry’ road sign as a prop.

Jabbing his hands into his hips, he pondered running along Bethnal Green Road in the direction of his flat. He knew his suit, his shoes, his shopping and his man-bag looped over his shoulder would all slow him down, not to mention the high risk of breaking into a sweat in the temperate summer evening. For a second time Jay considered ditching his shopping, and again reason prevailed. He lacked the disposable income to throwaway forty-five quid’s worth of fresh produce.

Weighed down to a slumping, Neolithic toil towards home, scraping his shoes and his metaphorical knuckles against the concrete, Jay looked forward to another evening in his cave finding a playmate on the Internet. He wished he had bought the promotional pack of burgers from Tecso. His heartache could find solace in a quarter-pounder with cheese and bacon.  Ice cream as well. He could use some ice cream. Jay hadn’t eaten ice cream in ten years.

Passing by Gupta & Son he failed to decipher the layers of graffiti exhibited on the metal shutters padlocked to the ground. Satch had gone. LSD had long gone. He had lost her definitively this time. The thrill of the chase had come to an end outside the place where it had all began.

Raising his speed to normal walking pace and raising his chin off his chest to his normal walking position staring at the pavement in front rather than the tops of his shoes, Jay wanted to get back to the flat to get back to feeling sorry for himself. He should never have left the house. It was a crazy idea. Factoring in the additional square-footage, increased customer traffic and superior deals, he should have known the supermarket would a far trickier forum for the type of manoeu …

Hold on. There she is. There she is again. It’s not all over!

Stooping behind a scooter parked on the corner of his street, LSD rested her plastic bags on the paving stones in front of Baltimore Fried Chicken and tucked her hair behind her ear. Rifling purposely through her handbag also resting open on the concrete, he guessed she was looking for her phone. He guessed she was expecting a call from her boyfriend.

Don’t be defeatist, he castigated himself. It could be her mother calling, or a friend, or a colleague, or she might not be searching for her phone at all. There were endless possibilities for what she might be doing on the opposite side of the road. She might need to find a pen to write down a few lines of poetry or put away a leaflet for an upcoming golf sale.

Slowing to a casual stroll, Jay looked around for other pedestrians. A cyclist in full reflective gear zoomed past him clipping the outside of his upper arm. Jay muzzled the anti-two-wheel vitriol he kept close to the tip of his tongue and utilised the empty pavement to execute a subtle pavement and retreat ten metres towards the tube station.

Stepping out on to Roman Road in front of the fire station, he misjudged the speed of an oncoming Focus and had to rush his bags to the safety of the other pavement like an overburdened airport traveller late for a connecting flight.

Taking a deep breath, Jay checked his suit, his tie, his shoes, his hair, his breath and his shopping bags. The entire team looked, smelt and…erm…weighed as good as they were going to get. Moving along the pavement he cleared his throat readying his vocal chords to offload a passing ‘hello’ and recovered his casual stroll in time for his approach to LSD.  Ten metres out, she was still bending down with her back to him. At five metres she stood up. At one meter she turned around. As he came upon her, she looked up, she looked at him, she looked him in the eye, she smiled at him, he smiled back, he continued walking…why was he still walking? He walked on. He walked past her. He turned left towards his flat.  He felt her eyes burning a whole in the back of his suit jacket. Was she checking out his bum?

Suddenly Jay became self-conscious. Modesty flooded his balance. His arse felt huge. His legs felt heavy. He completely lost the ability to walk properly or in a straight line. Zigzagging up the street, he felt like the bottom half of his legs had been kitted out with deep-sea diving weights after a weeklong drinking bender.

Lifting his feet off the floor, one lead weight at a time, his buckling legs carried him to the front door of his building.

Inside the communal hallway he shook off his insecurities and ran up the stairs to his flat. Scratching his key into his front door lock on the fourth frustrating attempt, he walk-ran over to the window in his living room-kitchen-diner. Standing his back against the wall, he peered out into the street like a spy who happened to take his grocery shopping on a stakeout.

She was nowhere to be seen. Impossible. Where could she have disappeared?

Jay lowered his shopping bags to the floor. Stepping on the backs of his new shoes, he offloaded his man-bag from around his neck and let it fall to the wooden boards with a thud (besides his phone and his wallet he had added two music magazines to the bag to give it more weight).

Catching the standby light winking in his direction he collected his laptop from the kitchen table, unfastened his waist button, unzipped his fly and made his way over to the couch, shuffling the last few steps with the seat of his grey trousers crumpled on top of the hem. Sorry Grey, you don’t deserve this.

But what else could he to do? What else did he have to look forward to? He didn’t have a girlfriend. He didn’t have any money. He didn’t have any work. His overdraft had the unauthorised limit in its sights. He had already changed his credit card three times. His student loan repayments had stopped - thankfully - since he had lost his job, but he still had to find two hundred quid a month to pay back his professional studies loan, six hundred quid a month for rent, and eighty quid a month for that fucking gold-star gym membership She had made him take out.

Jay considered moving back home. He could move back to Pembroke. Move back to Wales. Move back into his old bedroom. Sign on. Catch up with his old friends who had never stopped signing on since that first summer after A-levels when they thought it would be a good idea to go down to the Job Centre en masse and start collecting spending money for their fortnight in Magaluf; everyone except Jay. His parents wouldn’t let him sign on or go to Magaluf.

 

§

 

When he left school, Jay only student in his year making it east of Cardiff. Jay had made it all the way up to London. Jay was going to hang out with famous actors and rock bands. Not quite the way it turned out, but he would hate to see the look of disappointment on his friends’ faces when he turned up at the same Job Centre as them and printed out the same job vacancies from the same machine on the same recycled supermarket receipts.

They would catch-up, swap-stories and reminisce about the old days. He would have his old friends back. He would have regular friends. He would remember what they had been like to him. He would remember that they were not his old friends. They were never his friends.  What would they reminisce about? How much they made fun of his weight on most days of their shared comprehensive school education, or his inexperience with girls, or how much he hated himself back in the day?

Jay had moved on. He had lost all the weight in the summer before university. In London he had become a different person with real friends and a social life. The confidence to approach girls took its time to catch up with his weight loss, but last year he even managed to get his first girlfriend.

They might have moved on as well. Some of them would be married with kids by now. He could accompany them to ZanziBar, the nightclub on the high street. They could get drunk together. He could find a girl to talk to. He could impress her with his further education. He could pretend to be visiting his parents for the weekend. He would sneak her into his house. He could fuck her in the spare room with his hand over her mouth whilst his parents slept upstairs. In the morning she would be gone with his fake phone number, he would never have to see her again, and he could return to hating himself as he had done growing up.

Going back to Pembroke was not an option.

 

§

 

Jay took his time deciding which one of the on-screen girls he wished to get to know more intimately. Loosening his tie, he got up off the couch to remove his jacket and roll up his sleeves. A box of tissues sat at arms reach on his coffee table, the first man-sized casualty spurting up through the perforated opening.

Draping his jacket over the armrest of the couch, the screech of his broken door buzzer startled him upright. Looking from his computer screen to the hallway and then down to his feet, the proximity of the porn to the sound coming from the hallway and his trousers bunched up around his blacks socks provoked a comedic mix up between his feet and his brain, like two strangers running into each other in a narrow stair well.

One half of his brain wanted his legs to carry him to the door, the other half wanted his arms to address the porn issue on his computer and pull up his trousers. His legs couldn’t decide which direction to follow so attempted to go both ways, his eyes darted around the room making his head spin, and his arms propelled his body around like a deranged power walker. And to make matters worse his big toe had poked its uncut nail through a visible hole in his right sock. 

Jay fell on to the couch and began closing down the open windows on his computer. The buzzer screeched again. Shutting the screen, he scrambled to his feet, repositioning his boxer shorts and pulling up his trousers.

As a child Jay used to react to the postman in a similar frenzy, tearing down the stairs of his parents’ house to collect the mail causing the metallic letterbox to flap open and closed like an air vent. Moving tentatively towards the videophone in the hallway, he realised his motivation had become more nuanced as an adult.

He hoped it might be a large package being delivered. Better yet, it could be a friend popping around to see him. Or maybe, just maybe, She might have come around to make up with him. Perhaps after four months apart She had realised She could do worse than settling for him.

Sliding his socks over the polished floorboards, he stopped abruptly. On second thoughts, the first possibility was unlikely. At 8:15 p.m., any Royal Mail worker would be twelve hours late, tardy even for them. Also, he hadn’t ordered anything on-line since The Sopranos.

Reaching the intercom, the second possibility also sounded improbable. None of his friends lived close enough to him nor had the inclination to just ‘pop’ around without calling his mobile first. Guys just don’t ‘pop’ around anywhere without calling first.

Pushing the button with his finger, the third possibility was preposterous. She had taken three hours to explain her valid reasons to him, so why would she want to suddenly backtrack now?

“Yes?” Jay spoke languidly into the mouthpiece, having whittled down every potentially excitable option out of one unexpected buzz.

“Hi, sorry to bother you, it’s number 4 from upstairs, I’ve lost my keys, would you mind…”

Before the crackly female voice could finish speaking, Jay pushed the second button to open the door downstairs. The mechanical drone of the locks clicking open and shut drowned out the end of her sentence. Nevertheless, getting overexcited by non-existent parcels and listening to half a sentence from a female stranger via the intercom was still up there amongst the highlights of his day.

Jay returned to the couch to get back to prior business, opening up his screen and clicking open his aborted ‘research’. He was glad he didn’t have time to wipe his Internet search history. Two hollow knocks broke his concentration. Not again?

Second time around he still had his trousers on. Jay thought of ignoring it until a louder set of knocks rapped the frosted glass panel in his wooden front door. The greater conviction determined he’d get up off the couch to answer it. Plus, he only had to close his laptop this time.

“Hi,” she said, when Jay answered the door.

“Hello, hey, how are you, hi...”

“Number 4 from upstairs,” she said, pointing at the ceiling with her finger. “Thanks again for letting me in.”

“Not a problem. Don’t mention it. No worries. It’s my pleasure. What can I do for you?” Jay stood in the doorway with his hands in his pockets, his right leg hiding behind his left. Biting his lip, he forced his speech to slow down. “Do you live upstairs?” he said, sounding like a policeman.

“Yep, I’m afraid so. Don’t worry though, I’m not a burglar or anything.”

“No, sorry, that’s not what I meant. I mean, what I meant to say is that I’ve just never seen you around before, except…er…just now of course, outside on the street, standing with your shopping, when I walked past, just now…”

“Oh, that’s funny…I’ve been here for a while.” She looked at her watch. “It must be getting on for eight months by now. And I’ve seen you around. I often see you in that little shop next to the tube station. We’re so silly in London, aren’t we? No one says hello anymore.”

“I know,” he replied, trying to look concerned. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

“You know what, I used to see you around the place with a girl with blonde-ish hair.” She positioned her hand at Jay’s shoulder level. “About this tall, she was. Your girlfriend maybe?”

“Ex-girlfriend,” Jay corrected her. “We broke up about four months ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“No, don’t be, I’m well over it by now. A lucky escape.”

“That’s always the best way of looking at it.”

“Errrm…would you like to come in? I’ve just put the kettle on.”

“Umm….”

He sensed she needed further encouragement, or less wiggle room to back out of his offer. “My name’s Jay by the way,” he said, scrunching up the inside lining of his trousers pockets before holding out his right hand to shake hers, “nice to meet you.”

“Laura, nice to meet you too.”

“Hey, are you Welsh?”

“Yeaaaah,” she replied, hesitantly.

“Me too!”

“No way?”

“Yep. Where you from?”

“Swansea. And you?”

“Pembroke.”

“You don’t sound it.”

“I know. Don’t ask.”

“Okay, I won’t.”

“No, I didn’t mean it like that. Don’t take it…”

“Calm down, I’m only messing with you.”

“Oh, okay, great. So…now we’re officially not strangers anymore, and fellow countrymen no less, or countrymen and countrywomen, or countryman and woman, or whatever the correct word is, we should cement this momentous occasion with a cup of tea. We Welsh have to stick together up here.”

“I don’t know. I should be getting this shopping home.”  

Jay wanted to point out he knew she had nothing frozen in her bags so she was in no hurry, it would keep. “You can use my fridge if you want, for temporary cooling, free of charge.”

“Gee, thanks.”

He pinched his thigh through his left trouser pocket in lieu of shaking his head in disgust at his devastating chat. “Don’t mention it,” he replied encouraged by a lack of witnesses to plough on regardless. “We’re neighbours now, so…erm…I guess we’re meant to be good friends.” Jay pinched his thigh again. “Umm… would you like to come in then?”

“How can I refuse…” she smiled, “…when you reference the Neighbours theme tune?”

“Precisely. Come on in.”

Jay led the way along the brief hallway into his open-plan space, the one shot his flat had at any ‘wow-factor’. He walked her over to the kitchen section of his living room-kitchen-diner and opened the fridge door, freeing up some space on the top shelf for her to deposit her milk, her bio yoghurt, and her microwaveable meals for one.

“Impressive fridge for a bloke,” she said, picking up the block of haloumi. “Do you get to cook much?”

“I try,” he lied. “Nothing spectacular. I bet you’d put me to shame.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” she replied, replacing the haloumi. “I can’t cook to save my life.” Laura picked up the net of lychees next. “I don’t even know what these funny looking things are. Talk about not judging a book by its cover!” Jay frowned at her, but she continued talking oblivious to his confusion. “I wished you’d told me what to expect before I put my microwavable lasagne in your fridge. How embarrassing!”

Closing the fridge door, Laura lifted up the top newspaper on the pile Jay had stacked on the kitchen counter. She put it down after reading the date on the front cover and turned her attention to the sticky pot of strawberry jam he had taken out of the fridge to make his dinner.

“Jam butties,” he said, anticipating her train of thought. “My cover’s blown. I’m an awful chef! Completely rubbish.”

She smiled and nodded her head, then placed each of her hands on his matching white toaster and kettle set like a blind person getting to know the room. “I thought you said the kettle was on,” she said.

“I did,” Jay replied, stepping across her to push the button down. “It is. I mean it must have already boiled. Lets go and take a seat on the couch.”

“Nice place,” she said, looking around the room.  He knew she was lying now. His flat wasn’t nice. It once might have been nice before he moved in, but now it was a mess. He also knew that only a kid in single figures could walk into his flat and confidently say: ‘what a dump this place is’.

In his twenty-seven years, almost ten of which he had spent in various flat-warming’s across the Capital, house parties, pre-game drinks and pre-game ‘coffees’, Jay recognised ‘nice place’ as the two words an adult guest feels utterly compelled to bestow upon a home not entirely overrun with vermin. Admittedly he also found good cause for the nifty pairing.

Real enthusiasm for a London apartment shows itself in further commentary on the great view, on the stunning location or on the enviable outside space/balcony. Laura’s lips remained sealed.

“Thanks, sorry about the mess, I’ve had to bring a lot of my work home at the moment.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m no better, I promise you.”

Silence. Jay looked at her and smiled. Laura smiled back. Jay reasserted his smile when he realised he had no immediate words to follow up his initial smile. She examined the paintwork on her nails; chipped, he guessed, from the grimace on her face. He looked away. He looked around his flat like he was the visitor. The plasma TV did look impressive to him, but girls tended to get less excited about his forty-two inches.

Laura Doon,” he said, nodding his head. I guess when people see your initials they expect you to be called Lorna?”

“Why do say that, because of the book? Yeah, sometimes I guess. No, not so much. Actually, not at all, most people our age have never heard of it. Anyway, how did you know my surname was Doon?” Laura smiled.  “Have you been stalking me or something?” Jay shat himself.

“Don’t be silly,” he said, leaping off the couch and walking briskly into the kitchen. He stood next to the kettle gripping his fingers around the handle and fiercely watching the water remain insolently stagnant through the translucent measuring peep hole…until, until, until, contrary to popular opinion, the appliance would bloody well boil.

“Milk and sugar?” he asked her.

“Just milk for me please…and a tiny bit of sugar.”

“So milk and sugar?”

“Yes please,” she giggled.

How did he know her surname? How could he know her surname? Think. Think. Think. Would being honest in this situation really help him out? Would telling her he had found it out from Satch come across as romantic or really creepy?

Using a spoon to drown the teabags under the hot water, Jay’s brain focused on survival, imagining his head - shaped like a pyramid bag - being repeatedly dunked in the swimming pool by the school bully.

Opening the fridge door, ostensibly to pick out the milk, surreptitiously to buy himself some time by ducking his head inside the cooler, Jay left the door wide open to mouth a muted ‘FUCK, FUCK, FUCK’ at the artichoke and the avocado; the pair of them stared back at him unhelpful, inanimate and green.

Holding a mug in each hand, he walked over to the couch to certain arrest and imprisonment. 

“Do I need a coaster?” she asked.

“No don’t worry about it,” he replied placing her tea directly on the ring-marked coffee table.

“It’s on your buzzer!” he shouted. “It’s on your buzzer outside.”

“What is?” she replied, taken aback.

“Your surname. Your surname is written next to your buzzer outside…you know…on the intercom thingy.”

“Oh right, now I get you. Good observation skills.”

Close one, Jay thought.

“Yours isn’t,” she went on. “Doesn’t it say something funny like ‘House for Let’ or something?”

“Yeah, ‘Home for Tenants’. I guess I should change it at some point.” He laughed, she giggled. When the next line of the conversation came slower than expected, they both laughed again. They laughed too long for what they had been discussing, but as long as bogus levity disguised the silence he was in no rush to speak

Jay felt too exhausted to speak. His last foray into jump-starting the conversation nearly cost him his freedom. Stroking his hand against the back of his neck he could still feel the whiplash from that nearly car crash. Fortunately for him Laura broke the tension before he could start making arbitrary humming noises or stretching his mouth around a protracted ‘sooooo’.

“So you say you work from home? What is it you do, exactly?”

“I’m an architect, but I don’t just work from home.  We’re so busy in the office right now I had to bring some of my stuff back with me. Only for a couple of weeks or so, I hope anyway.”

“Wow, architecture, that’s cool. My cousin’s an architect, he says it’s absolutely brutal at the moment…”

“Yeah, I guess it is. But you know how it is, you manage somehow.”

“I suppose that’s right.” Laura flicked up the bottom of his grey jacket with her fingers then let it drop on to the couch. “You look to be doing alright though.”

Is that a sign, he wondered? Is that foreplay? Is she trying to make physical contact? Thanks Grey, sorry about before. “How about you? Your suit doesn’t exactly look cheap?”

“It’s a little bit embarrassing, actually.”

“How so? It looks very nice to me.”

Laura smiled. “Ha ha, very funny, but I don’t mean the suit. Another reason. I can’t tell you though, otherwise you’ll laugh.”

“No I won’t, I promise?”

“Brownies’ honour?”

“Cub-scouts’ honour,” Jay offered in return, raising three fingers on his right hand and bending his little finger back with his thumb.

“That’ll have to do. Here goes. I’m a lawyer….”

“Well, okay….,” Jay interrupted her, “…it’s a little bit embarrassing I grant you, but I’m not going to laugh at you for it.”

“Shut up….” she said, pushing his upper arm and instantly vindicating the press-ups he had done earlier in the day, “…and let me finish.”

Shifting his body on the couch so both of them weren’t sitting austerely airline, Jay rotated his torso towards her body and pointed his right knee towards her thigh. Settled into his listening position, he tapped her on the knee: “Okay, sorry, go ahead.”  

“I was a lawyer until two months ago. I mean I still am a lawyer I just don’t have a job to go to at the moment. This credit crunch is a real killer. It’s crazy. So many of my friends are losing their jobs.”

Jay nodded his head sympathetically whilst debating whether he too should come clean. Laura continued before he could conclude his deliberation. “You’re probably wondering why I’m wearing a suit?”

“It did cross my mind,” he lied, again.

Laura lowered her gaze to her mug of tea resting on her right knee. “Okay, here goes…Every day since I lost my job I wake up at normal time, I put my make-up on, I put on my usual work clothes, I get on to the Central line just like always, and I head into the City. The only part of my old routine I’ve changed is getting off at Liverpool Street.  My old work is at Bank you see, so I’m too scared to get off there just in case I run into any of my old colleagues. They’re bound to ask me what I’m up to now. What do I tell them? That I take my laptop to the upstairs of Starbucks by Spitalfield's Market and sit there all day listening to my iTunes and applying for jobs? Hardly. Do you know what else I do? I make one Grande Skinny Latte last all day! I’m sure that’s illegal. And I sneak a packed lunch in with me to save money. I know that’s definitely illegal. I’m such a sad-o. My colleagues…err, sorry, my ex-colleagues, would think I am such a loser. I am a loser. Liverpool Street is only one stop away. It probably makes more sense for me to walk to Starbucks, especially when it’s not raining. And it would be cheaper. I just can’t give up the habit of taking the tube. I haven’t even told my parents yet ‘cause they’d just worry about me and nag me to come home. Why would I want to move back to Swansea?” Laura looked directly at Jay. “I’d just be bored and miserable over there rather than being bored and miserable over here.”

Looking back at her Jay focused on the bridge of his nose to avoid the awkwardness of her iridescent eyes darting back and forth in search of his reaction. Lifting his mug, he dropped his eyelids to consult his tea for reasons why she should not move back to Wales. Number one: we’ve only just met. Number two: I think I might really quite like you, and number three: it would be nice for us to get to know each other properly. Of course, none of these reasons he could actually tell her.

“I bet you’re thinking I’m a massive loser right about now?” she asked him.

“No, not at all, quite the opposite in fact. I completely understand the situation you’re in. Funnily enough, the project I’m working on at the moment would be perfect for someone in your situation.”

“How do you mean?”

“Basically, it’s for this investment bank in the City which has more office space than it needs. My idea is to lease individual desks to people in similar situations to you. That way you wouldn’t have to spend your day in Starbucks. But listen, before I bore you to death with all the minor details, there’s probably something I need to tell you….”

“Before you do, whilst I’m pouring out my heart, can I make one more tiny confession first?”

“Sure, of course,” Jay replied, feeling in no hurry to tell her he was a fraud. “Please, go ahead.”

“Okay, no more after this, I promise.” Laura smiled mischievously. “Do you know the real reason why I go into that grubby little shop next to the tube station every Tuesday?”

“No, why?” ‘To top up my Oyster Card’, Jay knew what she intended to say.

“I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this.”

“You can tell me.” ‘Everyone has Oyster Cards these days,’ Jay prepared himself to say, ‘Don’t be embarrassed, they’re not like dinner tickets at school’.

“Because I saw you go in there….”

Jay looked her in the eyes to check it wasn’t a wind-up. “I – did – not – know - that,” he said like a British tourist taking his time to carefully pronounce each syllable.

Laura felt her cheeks with the back of her hands. “Yeah it’s true, otherwise I’d never choose to deal with that little Indian guy with the rubbish jokes. He always tries to talk to me about the strangest things. I think he might be flirting with me, or trying to anyway. I tell you if it weren’t for you I’d just use the machine in the station. I can’t believe you’ve never noticed me. I’m really hurt. And I can’t believe I’m being so forward. I hope you know it’s all your fault as well. If I carried on waiting for you to make the first move I swear I’d have to stand in that newsagents for another year!” Laura shook her head. “This is so embarrassing. Why do you think I stopped on the street just now? I saw you in Tesco. I was hoping you might offer to help me with my bags…”

“Oh my God I’m so sorry, you must think I’m such a scumbag? I can’t believe I’m such a scumbag. If it helps my cause, had I realised, I definitely would have offered to help.”

“Not really,” she laughed. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. What were you going to say?”

This is it, Jay said to himself, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Don’t play it cool. Don’t be an idiot. Tell her how you feel. Tell her everything. He felt his heart beat like the tail of the horny dog from flat three upstairs thumping against the wooden floorboards. “If we’re really being honest,” Jay said, lowering his voice to its sincerity and integrity setting, “before I tell you that, there’s probably something else I should confess to you first….”

 

 

 

 

 


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