Friday, April 24, 2020
Emma paced around her flat wondering how on earth to start the conversation with Jack.
‘He’s just a normal bloke; just go upstairs and ask how he is.’ She told herself, but the pacing continued unabated.
‘Yeah, he’s normal - it’s me that’s the problem. I need to go up there and sort of casually tell him my boss fancies him and would he like to go out with her. That’s not easy. What if he thinks I’m saying he has to in case I’m fired?’
‘Just tell him that isn’t the case.’
‘But then he’ll know I’ve been thinking he might think that and he’ll think I’m nuts.’
‘You have been thinking that and you are nuts, so what’s the problem?’
She stopped talking to herself at that point and decided to run herself a bath. The tap glowered at her, daring her to just try and put another innocent little toe in. She lay back in the bubbles and listened for the sounds of movement upstairs that would tell her when Jack was home and she could pop up. However the bath water had gone cold without her hearing the padding of dog paws and she pulled the plug out and climbed out, giving the tap a patronising pat before wrapping herself in a towel.
‘Didn’t get me this time.’ She gloated, and then quailed at how unreasonably proud of herself she was for not getting anything stuck in a tap during her bath. Was life really supposed to be like this?
Emma dried her hair and made a cup of tea.
‘Maybe Jack not being home is a sign? Maybe he doesn’t want to go out with Fiona?’
‘He doesn’t know you’re going to ask him.’
‘So how can he can have gone out to avoid you asking him a question that he doesn’t know you’re going to ask him?’
‘Well, he doesn’t know but the universe does.’
She saw that she was getting nowhere and stopped arguing with herself at that point. Sometimes it wasn’t worth the effort of arguing with the more ridiculous elements of her personality. The tea was finished and there was no sign of Jack so she poured herself a glass of wine. No sooner had she settled on the sofa but she heard the sound of 6 feet padding past her door and on up the stairs. A door slammed and then the sound of excited dog feet on the floor began what sounded like circles around the room. The footsteps were accompanied by manic barking. Emma wondered what was going on, and then it occurred to her that perhaps the barking might be a good excuse to go up and knock for Jack?
She stood up and headed for the door before she had time to talk herself out of it. It wasn’t until she was at the top of the stairs that she realised she was still carrying her glass of wine.
Emma knocked at Jack’s door and tried to listen over the sound of Elliott’s barking. The door swung open and Jack’s face appeared, bent over holding Elliott’s collar and trying to stop him barking.
“I’m so sorry!” Said Jack, but as soon as the door was open Elliott’s barking ceased immediately and he sat on the floor; tail windscreen wiping across the floor as he happily panted up at Emma.
“Oh no need to apologise. I just wanted to check everything was ok?”
Jack grinned, “Fine as far as I know… we only just got back in and he decided to have a funny five minutes. I don’t know what’s going on in his brain this week.”
“Must be the excitement of me moving in!” Said Emma cheerily, and then wondered where she got the confidence to joke like that. It was either the wine, or Jack’s company. Jack glanced at the wine she was holding.
“Want to come in and finish that? As my dog seems so desperate for your company?”
Emma was pleasantly surprised. She’d spent the last few hours going over and over in her head reasons she could come up here and start a conversation with Jack without him minding. She’d never thought about the fact he might be happy to see her. She followed Jack into his flat and sat on his sofa while he disappeared into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of wine. Elliott sat delightedly at Emma’s feet; tail swishing across the floor boards and chin rested on her knee. She stroked him carefully - not wanting to be too forward.
Jack reappeared with his wine and joined Emma on the sofa. “Sorry about this one turning up yesterday. I didn’t know he knew where you worked.” Jack joked and Emma laughed.
“I didn’t realise I was smellable through a plate glass window.”
“You’d be hard pushed to smell stronger than all the pine incense coming out of that place.”
“True!” She laughed again, “I have to wash my hair for ages to get the smell out after a shift.”
Jack took a sip of wine and she looked at him over the top of her own glass. Fiona was right; he was handsome. She took a sip of her own wine for confidence and managed to breathe in at the same time so that the wine created a dreadful burning sensation in her throat and nose. Her eyes watered as she tried desperately to subdue the spluttering. Jack noticed, he really couldn’t fail to notice.
“Down the wrong way?” He said, and her habitual deep flush spread up from her stinging throat across her face. Elliott raised his head and put a paw up onto her lap. She tried to get her spluttering under control and speak but the wet feeling in her lungs was not shifting. Jack laughed kindly, “I’ll get you some water” He said, and headed for the kitchen. Emma cursed herself.
She sipped the water gratefully on Jack’s return and he refilled both their glasses from the bottle he had brought back with him.
“That’s better.” She said, her throat still burning. “Sorry. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a conversation without anything ridiculous happening?”
“That would be nice.” Said Jack. “I don’t do much socialising.” Emma saw her opportunity.
“Well,” she raced another sip of wine into her and it mercifully found the right pipe, “I was wondering actually… you see, well, when you popped into the shop with this one,” she scratched Elliott cosily under the chin, “It just seemed really nice to see you, Fiona thought so too, and, we wondered…” god this was excruciating, she felt about 9 years old, “I wondered if you might fancy a day out?” He didn’t respond, “With Fiona?” She added. Jack swirled his wine round in the glass.
“What a lovely offer,” he said finally, taking a sip of wine. Emma noted with jealousy how all of his wine went straight into his stomach with next to no fuss. “What did you have in mind?”
Emma was delighted! “Bristol zoo is meant to be great. Fiona has never been and it’s easy to get there on the train.”
“Oh I could drive us.” Jack said amiably, “When did you have in mind?”
Emma couldn’t believe how well this was going! “The shop is shut on Sunday…?”
“Great!” Said Jack and drained his wine. “I’ll knock for you at 10 and then we’ll go and get Fiona?” Emma sat dumbstruck.
‘Noooooooooo!’ She screamed internally… ‘I’m not supposed to be coming! Just you and Fiona!’ But she had no idea how to get those words out of her mouth without seeming like she hated Jack or was completely duplicitous. She just nodded silently on the sofa.
“Great.” She managed, her throat feeling worse than it had when she’d regurgitated white wine into it minutes before, “Well, I should head back down… Saturday tomorrow. Obviously. You knew that. I just mean it’s busy in the shop on Saturdays. That’s all.” Why couldn’t she just talk like a normal person. Thank goodness Jack didn’t seem to have a problem with her unique approach to conversations, he was just smiling pleasantly at her.
She set her glass down on the coffee table and said her goodbyes and it wasn’t until she was downstairs with the door closed on her own flat that she remembered it was her own wine glass she’d left up there. She headed straight for bed, but as she passed the bathroom she couldn’t help glancing in and looking at the tap wondering if it might have been doing her a favour holding her hostage where she couldn’t mess things up.
“You’ve been really quiet all morning.” Snapped Fiona, returning from her lunch break with coffee breath and an air of productivity about her. For the first time that day there were no customers in the shop and Emma had no way to avoid the looming conversation with Fiona. She put down the candelabra she was polishing and moved across to lean on the counter.
“Yeah… sorry. So, I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I popped up to see Jack yesterday and ask him about maybe a zoo trip.” Fiona’s eyes lit up.
“What did he say?” She asked.
“Well, he said yes.” Said Emma, swallowing, “But, I sort of messed up the invite and he got the wrong end of the stick.
Fiona’s eyes widened in alarm. “You told him I’d sleep with him?!”
Emma recoiled in horror. “No! Why would I do that?”
“You said you’d given him the wrong end of the stick?!”
“I did! But not that stick! There’s more than one stick Fiona! Of course I didn’t say you’d… I just sort of wasn’t completely clear about it being a date and he assumed I’d be coming too… so, he said absolutely yes - he’s up for going tomorrow, but also… I suppose I’m coming?” Emma studied Fiona’s face. “Unless… well, I could pretend to be sick or something?” Emma added, trying to be helpful.
Fiona thought for a second, “No, don’t be silly. I think it’s lovely that you’ll be there. I don’t even know the guy - just thought he was a bit handsome. So, maybe it’ll be nice to get to know him more relaxed and that. Besides…” she trailed off and avoided eye contact with Emma and Emma stiffened.
“Oh, nothing.” Fiona busied herself with order forms from the drawer.
“It’s not nothing. Besides what?”
Fiona looked up, guiltily. “I… I spoke to Norman last night.”
“I know, I know.”
“You were supposed to be going cold turkey, remember?”
“I know! I was! But then… he messaged me last night to say he missed me and could he please just see me once to say goodbye.”
“Right…” Emma let her suspicions show in the extra syllable she added to the word.
Emma could see Fiona was going to need further prompting to get the truth out of her. “So, what?” She was sorely tempted to add a young lady to it but then felt like that be going too far given that Fiona was a decade older than her and, more importantly, her manager.
“So I called him.” Emma let out a sigh of relief, just a call - phew, but Fiona hadn’t finished, “And he managed to persuade me to come out and meet him… he was parked around the corner in his car - the lovely blue one I told you about - and I got in and he drove me up to this gorgeous spot and -“
“Fiona! What are you, sixteen?”
“I didn’t have sex with him!” Fiona objected.
“Good - he’s married.”
“But, I mentioned going to the zoo, with Jack… I wanted to make him jealous see. Only it worked, it worked too well and he said he wanted to go. He said he couldn’t bear the idea of me going on a date with another man and I don’t know how it happened but I sort of said he could come.”
Emma stared at her in shock. How on earth was she going to explain to Jack that not only was Fiona sizing him up for potential date material but also, here was her part time married boyfriend along for the ride too? At least this mess was not entirely of her own doing… Fiona was going to have to play her part in straightening this mess out.
The bell over the door jingled and four American tourists came bustling in chattering about how quaint the shop was and how beautiful the window displays were. Fiona painted a huge smile on her face and went over to wow them with her regional accent and olde worlde charm.
The pair of them didn’t have a chance to speak again until the shop closed with a full till at 6pm, and Emma rounded on Fiona.
“Right then, missy,” she tried out - she might have denied herself a young lady earlier but she was mad and had every right to say missy now. “I suppose I will see you at 10:15 tomorrow morning at your flat? Unless you’ve decided to catch a lift with Norman?”
Fiona had the decency to look shame-facedly at her shoes. “No,” she mumbled, “I’ll see you at my place.”
Emma stalked home, feeling hot under the collar but also… oddly excited for what the next day would bring. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had social plans or drama or… anything really.
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Emma made her way to the shop slowly, wondering how work would feel now that she and Fiona had fundamentally changed their relationship. She could see it going two ways:
- Fiona was mortified about having revealed her inner most secrets at the spa and so reverted to being her stony self in the shop.
Emma didn’t feel like this would be the case; they had been texting over the last two days and things had remained friendly. Equally though, Emma was having trouble believing in her second scenario whereby she and Fiona were huddled in the corner of the shop whispering, giggling and hatching their plans.
‘Perhaps it’ll be a happy medium?’ Came a weary thought, ‘You know not everything has to be its most extreme version?’ Emma sniffed at the sarcy thought. She knew that, she just had trouble always remembering it.
Second-guessing Fiona’s behaviour was doing a marvellous job of blocking out thoughts of Theo. When Fiona had laid her deal at Emma’s feet in the spa Emma’d felt like blacking out there and then would be more straightforward than answering, but even with frantic staccato blinking and swallowing she couldn’t seem to make Fiona vanish into a puff of patchouli smoke.
“Go on.” Fiona had urged, “What have you got to lose? You’re already here.” She was right, of course, Emma realised. She was already in Bath with nothing familiar and no Theo, if she approached contact and was rejected then nothing in her reality would be different.
‘You’re lying to yourself.’ Something had insisted beneath the surface. Emma had shuffled in her robe and tried to focus in on what that thought was… how was she lying to herself?
‘If he rejects you something is different. Because then you’re here, for him, and he categorically does not want you. Whereas now, you have a vague hope that he could love you but he just doesn’t realise.”
It was quite the full speed thought to have sat there in a bikini while her boss peered at her from over a champagne flute.
“What if I try and he doesn’t want me?” She said in a small voice. Fiona looked thoughtful.
“Then you’re in the same boat as me.” She said, “And we’ll feel like shit together.”
Emma resolved to try some actual bravery… not just running across the country in a flamboyant gesture that still left her hiding; but actually being visible properly.
“Alright then.” She’d said to Fiona, and they’d shook hands on it, laughing about their schoolgirl pact.
For the remainder of her recovery time off Emma had mused about how best to go about catching Theo’s attention. Could she turn up to the Futurescope offices? Could she manufacture some form or other that she needed for full closure on working there? Possibly. From there though she’d need to find a casual way to say hello to Theo… that was assuming he was even in the office at the time.
She’d considered some light internet stalking. His profile picture constantly popped up as a Person She Might Know and usually she saw it and screamed “YOU THINK?” At the concept of Mark Zuckerberg, “OF COURSE I KNOW HIM, HE’S GOD.” Last night her cursor had hovered over his perfect bone structure mere millimetres away from clicking Add Friend. But that had just led to a panicked vision of spending the next week with no notification to tell her it had been accepted. She could picture him in a penthouse flat with a brand new shiny silver computer open on the desk. He peers at the friend request -
“Some mousy woman claiming to be an ex-work colleague is trying to add me as a friend.”
“Just delete it.” Would come the reply, and he’d give the request another cursory glance before following the order. Then he’d grab his whiskey and head into the bedroom where a supermodel would be perched on the edge of the bed in a silver evening gown with a tremendous thigh slit. “Ready to go?” She’d say, and he’d nod. But instead of making their way to a party somewhere fabulous they’d just make love there and then on the bed.
Emma switched off the fantasy hurriedly. “No need to watch all of that.” She said out loud and signed out of Facebook so there was no way a request could be sent accidentally by internet gremlins as she slept.
Emma arrived at The Christmas Shop and waved to Fiona through the glass. Fiona unbolted the door and let Emma in.
“How’s it going?” Emma felt shy, a little nervous in case Fiona wasn’t as friendly as she had been before.
“I’m alright. Did you call him?” Fiona blurted, and Emma immediately relaxed. New Fiona was here to stay - what a relief.
“No, I don’t have his number. I’ve been trying to come up with a plan though.” Emma dumped her jacket and bag in the staff room while Fiona opened up the shop and they spent the morning dusting and nattering about possible ways Emma could contrive to meet Theo. Their top idea so far was to scout out the offices of Futurescope on a Friday evening and see where the staff tended to go for drinks. Fiona had even offered shut the shop early so that they made it over in time. It was not lost on Emma quite how much their top plan sounded a lot like stalking and she gently stroked her ribs.
Fiona took the first lunch break, leaving Emma in the shop to organise DIY crackers. Emma added price stickers to each one and put them together in colour coded groups on the hanger.
The bell over the door jingled and she called a friendly “Hello!” Over her shoulder. She hated to crowd customers and had vowed to herself she would never become the sort of shop assistant who bounced straight over to see if she could help. What was wrong with browsing? Browsing was great.
There was no answer from the customer.
‘Possibly a tourist.’ Emma mused and finished up organising the crackers before turning round. There wasn’t a customer. She looked up again at the door - perhaps the wind had caught it and set the bell off?
A small bark brought her attention to the floor and the dog sat on it. A black and white collie sat in the middle of the shop looking up at her proudly. In front of the dog was a brown men’s loafer. The dog looked extremely pleased with itself. Perhaps the shoe was new, thought Emma, and then marked that thought down as a low point even for her. Plus the shoe looked well worn. Big too.
“Why do I keep finding dogs around?” Emma said out loud, unsure whether to approach the dog. Maybe it was a sign? Should she get a dog? Maybe she didn’t need to, maybe one would come to her. Maybe this one already had? What was she going to do with it?
With one eye on the patiently sitting dog she edged over to the window to see if there was any sign of an owner for the dog. The dog didn’t seem to want anything. As she peered out past the displays of the Nativity she could see a man coming quickly down the street; he seemed to be looking about and maybe calling out from what she could see. As he got nearer… oh god, it was Jack. Emma’s head whipped back round to the dog on the carpet. Was it the same dog as the poo one? She tried to think back to the dog but she’d been so heavily focused on the turd she’d barely registered what it looked like. What had Jack called it? Him?
“Elliott?” She said out loud, and the dog barked loudly. “Why?” She said to him and then stuck her head out of the door of the shop. She waved hugely over her head and caught Jack’s attention. “Jack! He’s in here.”
Jack came racing over, he was holding a shoe box.
He followed Emma into the shop and they stood assessing the dog on the carpet.
“He must like you!” Was the first thing Jack said, and Emma blushed. Then she blushed even harder that just the thought of a dog liking her was enough to make her blush. Was that all it took these days to cheer her up? How starved for affection had she let herself become?
“Is that your shoe?” She asked, pointing to the wayward brogue on the floor.
“Yes,” said Jack, scowling, “We were shoe shopping up the road and I was just trying on a pair when this minx picked up one of my old ones and just dashed out the shop. I ended up having to buy a pair just to have something to leave in.”
Emma looked down at the modern trainers Jack was wearing. They didn’t quite look right on him.
“Panic buy.” He explained. There was a silence afterwards. In Emma’s version of the silence the distraction of dog and shoe ceased to be enough to block out the memories of the hospital car park any longer. She hoped the same was not true for Jack’s.
Just as the silence was reaching breaking point and Emma was terrified she was going to fill it, the bell above the door tinkled again and Fiona came back from her lunch. She stopped short when she saw Elliott.
“Sorry Fiona, I know we’re not meant to have dogs in the shop but this is my neighbour, Jack. The dog is his - his name’s Elliott. They had a bit of a mishap shoe shopping. For some reason the dog seems to really like me.”
Emma had seen Fiona reacting to a tourist trying to bring a small dog into the shop before and so she braced herself for the curt request to remove the hair-shedding, drooling, tail wagging thing. Fiona though, seemed to be gazing adoringly at Jack.
“Oh no problem!” She breezed, “Lovely to meet you Jack - I’m Fiona. Stay as long as you like.” And she disappeared into the staff room. Emma was astounded.
“That’s my boss.” She said to Jack.
“She seems nice.” Said Jack.
“She is - we went to a spa together this week.”
Jack raised an eyebrow.
“As friends.” Emma added, although completely unsure why. It made Jack laugh though so she tried to pretend she understood why he was laughing. “Listen, about the hospital… I’m so sorry. If it had even crossed my mind that the things I was saying would lead to such an awful situation for you I would have… well, I probably would have still found a way to accidentally do them, but I wouldn’t have meant to. You know?”
It was a pretty dreadful apology as apologies go but at least it was heartfelt, Emma thought.
“Oh hey, no harm done - it was the least you could have done after my dog ruined your hallway and sat on your kitchen counters. I don’t want to know what you’ll plan to get me back with for him bringing a smelly shoe to your work place.” They both laughed. Emma liked Jack being around - he was very straightforward, she felt like even when she said the wrong thing around him he tried his best to work with it and understand her. It was relaxing.
Jack pulled a lead out of his pocket and attached it to Elliott’s collar. “Could I put this in your bin?” He asked, holding up the tooth-marked shoe.
“Of course.” Said Emma, hurrying to be helpful. She grabbed the shoe and her fingers slid across the leather of the toe in the saliva that had leaked out of Elliott’s grip. “I’ll put it in the skip.”
“Thanks. See you later then.” Said Jack, “Come on Elliott - you must leave this poor woman alone from now on. So strange.” And he left the shop shaking his head at the dog.
Emma stood in the shop holding the shoe.
“That’s your neighbour?” Said Fiona, re-entering the shop now the coast was clear.
“Yeah, he lives upstairs.” Said Emma, crossing absent-mindedly over to the bin behind the counter.
“He’s gorgeous.” Fiona sighed.
“Is he?” Emma’s head shot up to Fiona.
“Of course he is! Can you see him?”
“Yeah… I mean… I guess. But he has a beard?”
“I dunno. Beards are… well… I don’t know.” It had never occurred to Emma that you could fancy someone with a beard. Theo was clean shaven.
“How old do you think he is?” Asked Fiona, dreamily gazing out of the window.
“I don’t know… 42?” Emma guessed.
“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Was all the reply she got out of Fiona. An idea sprang into Emma’s head…
“I could set you up with him!” She shrieked, “It could be your prize for ending things with Norman!”
What kind of date does Emma set Jack and Fiona up on?
- The zoo
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Emma sipped at her prosecco and looked at Fiona’s miserable face. For a heart stopping second she contemplated telling Fiona the truth about why she had moved to Bath, but even running the words over in her mind made her bowels turn to cold milkshake.
“You really don’t know anyone else in Bath?” Fiona asked, something in her eyes was searching Emma’s face for solace. Emma winced.
“Well, my old company has an office here… so, I know a few people that I’d had contact with. I wouldn’t say I had friends, I don’t even know their numbers but… if I went into the office and, introduced myself… clearly, they would remember who I was.”
Her voice bouncing off the marble and stone of the spa walls sounded pathetic. Emma listened to the words spilling out and felt so stupid and alone all of a sudden. She saw a vision of herself packing up her flat and bundling everything into a van to move back to London. Jack would be standing at the top of his staircase looking relieved that the nutter below was going, and he could get a decent housemate for the building. She’d be racing back along the M4 with her tail between her legs to sink into a different, but equally mind numbing job, in a different but equally life numbing company. Her parents would have her round for lunch one Sunday a month and her Dad would ruffle her hair and say he had missed her, while her mum would say she was very proud of her for trying to be independent but maybe Bath was a bit far and should she have perhaps tried Chiswick first? Then Emma, full of carbohydrates and milky tea, would traipse back on the underground to a new flat that felt small and dingy compared to the high ceilinged elegance of Bath.
It was a miserable little daydream even by her standards. But probably one of her more accurate ones. Back in the real world Fiona was topping up their glasses and sighing to herself.
“His name is Norman. I think that’s the thing I’m most embarrassed about, after the fact that I’m having an affair. Who has an affair with a man called Norman? Honestly.” The Prosecco and the cosy warmth of the heated chair beneath them was really loosening Fiona’s tongue. Emma was pleased, there was something ever so comforting about watching Fiona spill her real thoughts out between them. “People who have affairs are supposed to look mean, they’re meant be really wicked and heartless. In my defence I didn’t know he was married when I first met him see, we went on a few dates before he told me and I really liked him… and, obviously, he’s loaded so I just… I loved being spoiled too, I suppose. Then after a month or so, when he couldn’t keep dodging my questions about why I couldn’t go to his and stuff he told me he was married. I didn’t talk to him for two weeks; I was mortified. But then, oh god it’s so cliched when I hear it out loud, he called me up he did. He said things were over with his wife, that they were just going through the motions while he got up the courage, and the legal protection, to leave with his money. I believed him. I felt so flattered by him trying to win me back so desperately.”
Emma wondered if the chaise-longe nature of the seats was helping Fiona talk; it was just like being at a therapists, but with wine and in a bikini. Or maybe some therapists did offer that? She was almost certain she needed a therapist so maybe seeking one out who offered wine and a more relaxed atmosphere was a good idea? It would be a minefield to google though without finding some absolute rascals, she mused, before forcing her mind back to focusing on Fiona.
“They did break up. Oh that was the most wonderful month of my life. She found out about me, see. That night wasn’t wonderful, it was awful. She turned up at my house ranting and screaming and he had to come and tear her away. I felt bad for her, but then… I also sort of didn’t.” Fiona sounded almost wistful, “She was there in the front garden with her perfect hair, and face and figure and life, and house and career and dogs and she was spitting teeth at me. I remember standing in that front window looking at her thinking; you have everything, can’t you just let me have him? He isn’t even that great. But he’s something. He moved in with me for a bit after that… it was like having a proper boyfriend. I’ve never lived with a partner before that. Have you?”
Emma opened her mouth to answer but was saved the difficulty of replying by Fiona continuing regardless.
“After a couple of weeks though he got a hotel room… said he felt awkward being in my house surrounded by my stuff without his own space. I was a bit upset, but we said we could maybe think about getting a place together once the dust had settled, and he moved into a hotel. Then, next thing I know he’s telling me he has to go back to her… she’s not coping, got on the drink and begging him and he feels like he owes it to her to give it another shot. I was gutted. I had another two weeks of not talking to him, but then… I don’t know. I missed having the company. I don’t find it easy to make friends.”
‘You don’t say,’ thought Emma, raising her mind’s eyebrow ‘You have barely managed to say three words to me in 10 days of working together and now you’re spilling your entire life story to me due to half a glass of sparkling wine. You have nearly as much social skill as me.’ In a way, Emma liked that Fiona was quite clearly unhinged and sad like she was. Emma thought back over exchanges they’d had in the shop where Fiona had been snappy and curt, she overlaid Fiona’s snippy responses with an imagined internal verbal diarrhoea that Fiona could only keep at bay by being very cold. It worked.
“So I crawled back, didn’t I? Well, I mean, I more sort of stood still and let him crawl to me. But I let him back in. Only this time we have to be so careful in case she gets even a sniff. It’s… it’s not fun anymore at all.” Fiona looked like she might cry again, “But I’m too scared to end it and be alone.”
Emma wanted to hug Fiona but the heat and Prosecco had combined with a lifetime’s worth of memories of her being socially excruciating and she didn’t trust herself to stand up.
“I’m pathetic.” Said Fiona, “A stupid middle-aged woman who would rather be a sad mistress than alone. A sad, middle-aged shop manager. With bad hair.”
Emma quite liked Fiona’s hair. She opened her mouth to say so but different words came out;
“I moved to Bath because there was a guy in my office that I had a crush on and he got a transfer here so I just moved here. I didn’t even try and also get a transfer in case it didn’t work or took too long. I just quit the day I found out he’d gone and moved here. He has no idea. Probably doesn’t even remember who I am but I quit my job, a nice flat and everyone I knew and moved here because of an office crush.”
‘That was quite a lot more than just telling her she has nice hair.’ Emma thought numbly.
Fiona stared with her mouth actually open like a cartoon. “Really?” She wheezed, “No, you didn’t? That’s why you’re here? You’re crazy!”
Emma laughed. Despite the scooped out feeling she had from telling the truth, she felt oddly flamboyant about it. It was crazy! But she had said it out loud and the world hadn’t ended, she hadn’t expelled the truth and folded down like damp cardboard. No one had arrested her. She’d told the truth to a woman doing something equally barmy, and they were now just here; the two of them, hanging out in a spa being utterly unstable with their lives.
“Well aren’t we a pair?” Said Fiona, wondrously, “I was so jealous of you. I thought you were this ethereal free spirit who had -“
Emma snorted. Ethereal free-spirit? Her?
“Oh good god no!” She chuckled, “Clumsy stalker is more me at the moment.”
“You were always in a daze and so dreamy. I thought you were really cool. I didn’t realise you were scheming how best to trip over your love interest in the street and start a life with him.” Fiona’s eyes were no longer brimming with tears, she was smiling and looked less rigid against the chair. This was nice, Emma realised, this must be what having a friend was like.
“I was in shock, I think.” Emma said, and had she had a glass more of wine she might have admitted to Fiona that she’d hurt her ribs squatting behind a reversing car spying on Theo. She didn’t though, perhaps, if this friendship continued to blossom she would save that anecdote to cheer Fiona up on another disastrous occasion.
Fiona poured the remainder of the bottle into their flutes and they drank them, continuing to chat companionably. Emma hadn’t felt this cosy or content in a long, long time.
As they both began to shift a little, knowing it was time to leave but not wanting to break the delightful spell, Emma plucked up her courage again.
“So, do you think you might leave him now… you don’t want to go through this again, do you?”
Fiona thought for a moment. “I could do. It’s scary though.”
“Yeah.” Emma agreed, wondering if she’d have the confidence to do it if the boot was on the other foot.
“How about,” said Fiona, “We make a deal… I’ll end it with Norman…” Emma liked the sound of that. “If you make contact with your man Theo?”
Emma dropped her flute instantly. Luckily the spa were well prepared and the plastic flute just bounced across the marble floor instead of shattering into a thousand foot shredding pieces. Emma flinched, sending a shooting pain through her ribs. She desperately didn’t want to make contact with Theo, not yet - she wasn’t ready!
‘But when will you be ready?’ She asked herself.
‘When I’m 6’1” and very slim and rich with perfect hair.’ Came the outraged reply, ‘Obviously!’
No, she desperately didn’t want to make contact with Theo. But on the other hand… she looked at Fiona, who was mopping up the little puddle of Prosecco and retrieving Emma’s flute… if that was the push Fiona needed to stop seeing Norman, maybe that was best for her friend? Emma realised she had a friend. It had been a long time since she had thought that.
Does Emma say yes to Fiona’s deal?
Choose an object to feature in the next chapter:
- A telescope
- A pomegranate
- A unicycle
- Three shoes
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
When the confirmation pinged into Emma’s emails she immediately danced back to the website to try and fathom getting a refund but no matter how many FAQ pages she went to, or live chat options she selected she couldn’t seem to fathom how to do it without picking up the phone and she desperately didn’t want to use her phone in case Jack heard her talking and remembered again what she’d put him through.
Perhaps they would give her a refund at the reception, she mused whilst warming some baked beans for dinner. Probably not, she concluded gloomily. There was probably some small print that she’d not noticed, and wouldn’t have read anyway even if she had noticed.
“You’re an administrator for goodness sake.” She chided herself.
“Were an administrator.” The very worst of herself added. “You’re now a part time tree decoration duster and you’re not even doing that this week because you got crushed between two cars spying on the man you fancy who you have chased across the country.”
Every time Emma thought about the car reversing back into her and the horror of it all she had to really push herself to believe it had actually happened. Had she really been there? Squatting in the street? Why hadn’t she just stood up and walked away? Chances were Theo wouldn’t have even noticed her. What had possessed her to just sit there and get crushed?
She pushed the thoughts out of her mind and flopped beans onto the waiting buttered toast. Orange juice splashed onto her pyjamas and she didn’t even bother to wipe it down. She padded back to the living room, her eyes flicking to the heavily scrubbed patches of her hall as she went.
“Take someone to the spa.” Said an oddly optimistic voice in her head as she sat down, “Come on. We’re here now - we live in Bath, you need to start making friends. Who could you take?”
Emma racked her brains. She didn’t really know anyone in Bath. Except Theo, and there was a thought desperate to be thought louder that she really didn’t even know him if she was honest.
That left Fiona. Fiona was the only other person she knew in this entire city.
“Except Jack.” Blurted out a thought she was trying to smother with a pillow.
“Yes,” she responded, “Yes I could go upstairs and knock for Jack and say, Oh hi, it’s me; you remember, the person who got you questioned about whether you hit women when you were just trying to be a good neighbour? Would you like to come to a spa with me? Afterwards, I’ll see what I can do about getting you up on murder charges. No thank you, we’re never speaking to him again.”
So that left Fiona. Ok. How would that go? Emma decided not to dwell on it too much lest she overthink it and do something daft. There was a wheedling voice suggesting that perhaps if Emma spent more time thinking about what she was doing and less time following her questionable gut instincts then perhaps her life would be going better, but she turned up her inner stereo and drowned it out as she drafted a text to Fiona.
She decided to claim that the doctor had suggested perhaps a steam room and some light floating would be good for recovery and would Fiona like to come to? She hoped this would make it seem to Fiona like she really was trying her best to recover as quickly as possible because of how much she valued her job. She sent the text and then quickly added an amendment that read “Tickets are on me.”
Emma finished her beans and was surprised to see her phone light up barely a few minutes later with an affirmative response from Fiona. It was brief, but of course it was, but definitely said Fiona would join her and perhaps they could go after she closed the shop the next day. Emma agreed and went to bed that night with the smallest seed of positivity nestled in her stomach.
At 7:30pm the next day Emma was stood in the ladies changing room with a towel wrapped round her bikinied body and an enormous shawl of panic enveloping the whole thing. She stared in alarm at the perfect bodies of the other women getting changed around her; their smooth skin, their smooth skin and their smooth skin. Oh god, their smooth bastard skin! Emma pulled the towel out gently, still sheltered beneath the enormous panic cape, and looked at her own skin… not smooth. Not smooth at all. Her bikini line looked like two moustaches peering out over the tops her thighs, her legs were verging on downy, her arm pits resembled two pitta breads sheltering timid kiwi fruits. She pulled the towel in tighter around herself and shuddered.
“Why didn’t you think to shave?” She cursed herself inwardly.
“Because you didn’t even think of owning a bathing suit until you were on your way here.” Came the alarmingly calm reply.
This was very true. Emma had been strolling from her flat to the spa when it had suddenly occurred to her she hadn’t brought a bathing suit. When she’d been picturing the evening, she’d not got further than meeting Fiona in the foyer and practising saying hi without spitting at her or getting her arrested for grand theft auto. She’d not actually gone much further with the thought process.
She ducked in hurriedly to M&S earning a frown from the woman by the baskets who was hoping to close fairly soon. She pulled a handful of swimming costumes off the rack and raced to the changing rooms but found it impossible to get into any of the one pieces without having to bend into a shape her fractured ribs would just not allow. The tannoy was repeatedly honking at her the staff were trying to go home to their families for the evening and so Emma ran from the changing room grabbed the nearest bikini that looked like it might fit and threw it at the cashier.
So here she was in the changing room, surrounded by the effortlessly glamorous middle-class women of Bath, wearing a loose fitting halterneck bikini with enough body hair to get her shot for being the missing link. Emma howled at herself internally… god she was tired of being a fuck up.
“I’ll just have to style it out.” She thought, defiantly miserable, “Body hair is perfectly normal. I should just pretend I’m really proud of it.”
She got to her feet and headed out to meet Fiona in one of the steam rooms.
After 10 minutes in the steam room Emma had no idea what was more uncomfortable… the intense muggyness and resulting inability to breathe, or the complete lack of conversation with Fiona. In films when people sat next to each other in steam rooms or spas there was a companionable silence, but between her and Fiona it felt like you could actually hear all the sentences they were contemplating being started and dropped before they were ever birthed.
Emma was so deeply uncomfortable from the heat, the company and the desperate fear that if she didn’t keep her knees firmly locked together one of them would brush against someone and they would run screaming from the steam room complaining about spiders.
Emma tried to think of something to say to Fiona, but everything she could say about herself kept leading back to the big things that she didn’t want Fiona to know:
- That she was an unstable psychopath
- That it was definitely a good idea to fire her before she burned down the shop
She tried to think of questions for Fiona, but they either seemed too invasive or like they would naturally lead to Fiona asking something back that Emma didn’t want to answer. She sat and sweated. Perhaps it would be less awkward up on the roof pool? Emma turned to Fiona,
“Shall we go up to the roof pool?”
“Lovely.” Said Fiona, and they stood up. Emma climbed the stairs with an awkward waddle trying to keep her thighs pressed as closely together as she could to screen her sprawling bikini line. It wasn’t so much a line as a scrum. They reached the roof pool and went to have a little shower rinse before dipping in. Emma ran her hands through her hair, enjoying the water, and then clamped her arms down after catching the eye of a woman looking at her monster pits in horror.
A small, grumpy voice in Emma’s head told the woman to piss off. Why shouldn’t she have hairy arm pits? Then Emma reminded herself that really, it was herself that was so mad at the hair, and she tried to give herself a break. My pits my rules she thought and joined Fiona in the pool.
The pool was no better at cultivating conversation and Fiona and Emma floated lazily occasionally muttering things like “It’s nice isn’t it.” And “Better than being at work.” At one point Emma said “lol” out loud and then vowed to google “How to make friends” when she got home to avoid ever being in this situation again. Emma glanced at her hands; the tips of her fingers were turning all pruney. She circled around to tell Fiona - that’ll kill fifteen seconds, she thought, maybe even twenty-five if Fiona says “mmmhmmm, so are mine” and shows me. But as Emma floated round to Fiona, she caught sight of her head just as Fiona took a huge deep breath and ducked under the water.
“What’s she playing at?” Thought Emma, wondering if it was a game and whether she should do it too. She watched Fiona frantically twist about and swim away towards the edge of the pool. Emma followed, unsure of how quickly to do so to not seem weird or rude. Fiona came up by the edge of the pool and leant her arms up out on the side, keeping her back firmly to Emma and flicking her long hair down around her face. Emma joined her.
“Was that nice?” Emma asked. Fiona looked dreadful. Mascara was running down around her eyes and she looked… she looked frightened. “Are you alright?” Said Emma, worried.
Fiona wiped the water off her face with a hand. “That man, over there - with the blonde woman in the pink swimming costume.” Fiona did a sort of backwards nod so she could indicate a direction without turning round. Emma subtly slid her eyes across and saw the man she thought Fiona meant. Emma was good at watching people without them knowing and she saw the relief in Fiona’s eyes when he was discreet.
“I see him.” Said Emma, “Who is he?”
“Is he with that woman?” Fiona asked, her voice squeaking. Emma tried to subtly watch as best she could. They certainly seemed close, but it was hard to tell in a swimming pool. Ooh! He put his hand on her shoulder, that seemed intimate and… oh, yeah, he was passionately kissing her. That was a clue.
“Er, yeah… yeah, I think so. Well, yes - they’re kissing.” Said Emma, and then, seeing the positively heartbreaking look on Fiona’s face, she added “Is that ok?” Even though it quite patently wasn’t.
All Fiona said was “Oh God.” And then disappeared back under the surface of the pool. At the point where bubbles started to flood up from her mouth Emma reached down and yanked her back up to the surface.
“What’s the matter… who is he?” Emma hissed. Unsure why she was whispering, there was no way the couple could hear them from the other side of the pool.
“He’s… he’s my boyfriend.” Said Fiona thinly, she was sniffing and although the pool water made it hard to know for sure, Emma thought she was probably crying.
“Oh god the cheating bastard!” Said Emma, a bit too loudly and a few people turned round to look, “Sorry.” She hissed to Fiona, “What a rat. Shall we march over there and shout at him?”
“No!” Said Fiona, panicked. “God no, there can’t be a scene.”
“Why not?” Emma replied indignantly, “If he’s cheating on you then you have every right to confront him.”
“Um,” Fiona avoided eye contact, “Well, not exactly. The, um, the woman he’s with… that’s his wife see. If she’s sees me here she’ll think we planned it. We’re supposed to be over since they got back together.”
Emma was dumbstruck. Quiet, moody, surly Fiona was another woman for an absolute cad in Speedos? She’d not seen this coming. Emma glanced at the clock on the wall.
“Well, we have to get out soon - our two hours is nearly up.” How had two hours managed to pass? She thought time had been stood still for most of the afternoon.
“We can’t!” Said Fiona, looking so pale and terrified that Emma was worried she might pass out. “You’ll have to go down to reception and extend our stay. I’ll pay them whatever they want but we have to stay.”
“I don’t think it works like that.” Said Emma, worried about having to trek all the way down stairs and bargain with the perfect looking spa staff.
“Well it’s going to have to.” Said Fiona, with a look that managed to somehow convey the very real threat of Emma’s job depending on it without actually saying anything that might land The Christmas Shop in any human resources hot water.
Emma relented and pulled herself out the pool, grabbing the nearest robe to cover herself with, and barely registering the annoyed “hey” from whoever the robe belonged to. She padded down to the reception and stood, dripping onto the marble foyer among the other fully dressed guests.
“Oh well,” she thought with a wry smile, looking down at her legs, “At least some people might think I have leggings on.”
She reached the desk and the beautiful man behind it looked surprised to see a very wet woman in one of their bath robes on this side of the building.
“You’re not supposed to…” he said, and Emma decided to cut him off and just go for it.
“I know, yes…” she said bluntly, “Listen, the friend I’m here with isn’t feeling very well so we need to extend our stay a little longer than the original two hours. Would that be possible?”
The man frowned, “No, I’m afraid not… if your friend is unwell she really needs to leave immediately - we can’t allow her to stay on if she needs medical attention.”
“No, she doesn’t… she’s not going to be sick or anything.” Emma was starting to panic. “It’s more of a heart thing.” The receptionists’ eyes flicked to the defibrillator hanging on the wall. “No! Not like that,” Emma added hurriedly, “It’s more of a…” she watched his gorgeously lashed eyes narrowing and wondered how best to get what she needed… “It’s more of a she’s just spotted the man she’s having an affair with is here with his wife and she is really worried that if she gets out of the pool now the wife will notice and pull all her hair out of her head.”
Emma stopped talking and just stared blankly at the receptionist whose eyes were now about as wide as it was possible for eyes to go. Emma ran through her hand through her hair and saw his wide eyes flick to her armpets and his nose wrinkled involuntarily. Then his eyes made their way lower down to where her dressing gown had fallen open and for a brief second she thought he was staring at her breasts. Then she realised it was the panoramic bruising across her ribs that had caught his eye. She tightened her robe gently over the evidence of her folly. “We’ve been having a bit of a tough time of it lately. Everything’s been a bit bollocks.”
The man seemed to melt in his seat and a smile dawned over his face. He nodded to Emma and they hatched a plan.
15 minutes later Fiona and Emma had been snuck from the pool by two of the loveliest staff Emma had ever encountered. She couldn’t believe how friendly the receptionist, whose name had turned out to be Matt, had been. He’d taken pity on the tired, bruised looking waif and her adulterous friend and offered to smuggle them out of the pool and away into their own private chill out room complete with jacuzzi and bottle of prosecco. Emma couldn’t believe their luck.
She and Fiona settled onto loungers and sipped at the prosecco. Fiona’s tears had dried and she was sniffing and laughing a little to herself.
“What a mess.” She said, a touch hysterically, “I keep promising myself I’m going to stop seeing him… I keep promising myself I’m going to get my life together, find a better job, get a man who will commit to me. Or at least stop being with a man who won’t commit to me. I just never do it. I just stay stuck in these ludicrous patterns. I’m such a coward. I wish I could be like you.” She rolled over to look at Emma who was astounded to hear anyone say something like that, “I wish I could just up sticks and run across the country,” Fiona continued, “You’re so brave. It’s so romantic.”
Emma felt her skin flush with pride and shame. It wasn’t nearly so romantic if you knew the truth, she thought sadly.