This is all 30 parts of my recent fiction serial in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 23,100 words.
I remember the afternoon when Becky finished with me like it was yesterday. Perhaps that’s because it was yesterday.
She turned her back on me after she told me to go, and refused to turn around and discuss it further. I thought about pleading. You know, the usual stuff.
“But I don’t understand”.
“What have I done wrong?”
“Can’t we just sit and talk about it?”
They all ran through my head, but I decided against any of them. Something about her posture, or perhaps just how her hair looked so thick as she ran her hand through it, but I had only just noticed, I don’t know. I sort-of understood, even though I wasn’t happy about it. I picked up my car keys.
“Okay, I will crash at Luke’s tonight, and get some more of my stuff tomorrow, when you’re at work”.
She stood stock still, without turning or replying. I wondered if she was crying.
I hoped she was crying.
“I will take that as a yes then”.
I drove to Luke’s in a dream, and can’t remember the journey at all. He was fine about it of course, always happy to have the company. Secretly pleased to have his best friend back, he carefully avoided any I-told-you-sos, and went into the kitchen to get us both a beer. When he suggested a curry be delivered later, and he had a new game to play on the Playstation, I nodded without adding a comment.
“Your usual? Lamb Pasanda, Garlic Naan, and boiled rice?”
A nod. I had already finished the first beer, and he went to get me another one.
“Got the latest Red or Dead game too, if you fancy that?”
Another nod. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we were too old for video games now.
“Or we could watch a DVD. You know I have dozens you will never have seen. I got a great Chinese martial arts one last week. I’ve already watched it twice, but more than happy to see it again”.
Another nod. Had he forgotten I hated martial arts films?
He sat back down, looking awkward, sipping the beer through the bottle top. I had known him since we were five years old, and there were times I seriously doubted that he had ever grown up. He was wearing a heavy metal t-shirt that was so tight, it was lifting up showing his belly. And he didn’t even like heavy metal. His flat was like a tip, and smelled of his trainers which were arranged in a row along one wall. He loved to wear those trainers, and I couldn’t remember a time when he had worn anything else.
Except at our wedding of course. I told him not to show up as my best man unless he was wearing proper shoes.
“I can sleep on the sofa, Frankie, you can have the bed. Then I won’t disturb you when I get up for work”.
Another nod. I was wondering how dirty the sheets would be.
He had called me Frankie, just like Becky did. Becky and Frankie. I wouldn’t be hearing that anymore.
My parents always called me Fran, and pronounced it ‘Frarn’. I hated that, as it made me sound like a girl. They had named me Francis after grandad Frank, Mum’s dad. I had never even met the man, and I was stuck with his stupid name forever.
I ate my curry as I watched Luke trying in vain to kill cowboys on his Playstation game. After finishing the sixth beer, I told him I was having an early night, and got my stuff from the rucksack.
I was right about his bedding, so I slept on top of the bed, covered by my coat.
Not that I got much sleep.
I waited until Luke had left for work before emerging from the bedroom. Sleeping on his bed had made me feel dirty, but there was no way I was going to use his shower, as that looked even dirtier. A quick glance showed that a large percentage of his too-long dark hair was living around the drain and the base. Using the toilet to have a pee was bad enough. I reckoned I could have had a competition to estimate when that had last been cleaned. The inside of the bowl looked as it it had been varnished. I would use the shower at home, when I went back to get more stuff.
Wandering around Luke’s small flat, I shook my head at the mess, and the stuff piled up everywhere. He even had his old Transformers, from the days when we played with them as kids. It felt as if he had never thrown anything away, and had lugged it all with him from his mum and dad’s when he bought the flat.
I didn’t understand why he didn’t employ a cleaner. He had a great job, and earned twice as much as I did. He could have even bought a much nicer flat, with spare rooms to hide all his crap away. But he said he didn’t like the idea of anyone looking around when he was out, so obviously preferred to live like a pig in his sty. The fact that he had money was evident in many other ways. The enormous television, the latest and best you could buy. The new car parked in the underground car park, a rare import that turned heads whenever he drove it. Fancy pairs of trainers that cost as much as one of my whole outfits, and the most expensive mega-speed broadband and streaming package on the market.
I knew I had to get moving, or my car parked on the street would get a ticket. Might even get towed away if I wasn’t quick.
Driving back, I took a stupidly long route, as I wanted to be sure Becky would have left for work when I arrived. That gave me too much time to think about the fact that I was going to have to go to my mum’s later, and ask her if I could move in until things were sorted between us. There was no way I could tolerate staying at Luke’s. Not unless I got a firm in to deep-clean the place first. Besides, I didn’t intend to make the split too final, too soon. Going back to my family home would give a better impression than moving in with a single friend. Let her stew about things for a while, and hope that we could get back together before it became accepted that we weren’t.
So much to consider. Mutual friends, both of our extended families. Ten years of being together, almost like one person.
Maybe that was the problem. People said we were inseperable. Not just husband and wife, but best friends too. How many times had I heard both of us say that we no longer needed anyone else, now we had each other?
Even after one night away, walking back into my own place felt strange. Like I was a burglar, unwanted.
An empty bottle of Pinot Grigio on the coffee table told me that Becky had probably had to drink herself to sleep, and the smell of her morning routine was still clinging to the bedroom, making me miss her more than I had ever thought possible. At least she hadn’t packed up all my things into suitcases. I sat on the bed, my body feeling strangely heavy. We should have been going away for five days today. I had taken the time off, and booked the trip as a surprise. Becky’s face had fallen at the news, and she was adamant that there was no chance of her getting away. Work was too busy to allow unexpected leave, and she said I must have been crazy to think she could just ring in and say she was on holiday.
She was right of course. I had been impulsive, stupid. I hadn’t thought it through.
That was how the argument had started.
I was aware that I had sat down on ‘my side’ of the bed. I smiled a grim smile, wondering how soon it might become someone else’s side. How had it come to this? It had been so different at the beginning.
When I met Becky, I was twenty-six years old. Unlike some of my friends, I had decided not to go to university. I wanted a job, not the chance of a career when I was almost thirty. I coasted through school, disappointing my parents with average O-level results. So I left and went to sixth-form college, where I worked a bit harder and came out with three pretty good A-levels. That got me a start with the biggest of the big four banks.
It also proved to be the kiss of death for the relationship I had enjoyed since we were fifteen. My girlfriend Paula was the only Chinese girl at the school. She was clever, much cleverer than me, and her parents didn’t really approve of her having a regular boyfriend at that age, especially one who was not Chinese. They owned four prosperous retaurants in Soho, and lived in a house three times the size of ours. Her older brother was a research scientist in some lab at Cambridge University, and they expected great things of her.
But she adored me, and they hadn’t counted on that.
So they did what rich people can do, and paid for her to go to college in America. Berkeley, the one in California. It was a big carrot to dangle, and I didn’t blame Paula for grabbing it with both hands. Maybe if I had decided on an Englsh university, she might have followed me there.
Then again, maybe not.
The same time I lost her, I lost Luke, my best friend. He went to university to study computing and electronics. As he had never so much as kissed a girl, he had very little to leave behind.
But I had new friends at work. Or so I thought. It took me a while to realise that colleagues are not the same as friends, even if you go to lunch with them, then out for drinks after work. For one thing, they live all over the place, so it’s unlikely you will meet up at weekends. And for another, you put up with each other because you have to. You need to be able to cope with being with them for around nine or ten hours a day, so it seems only natural to continue that connection by going to the pub on your way home, or all grabbing a meal at TGI Fridays.
Even in my late teens, I worked out that most of those guys were not the sort who I would usually choose to be friends with. They judged on appearances, talked a lot about gadgets, cars, and money. They discussed women by type, as if they were pedigree dog breeds, and looked down on anyone who actually loved their girlfriend. My dad had a word for those kind of guys.
But I liked the job. I liked wearing a suit and tie to work, and didn’t even mind the boring train journey from Gidea Park into the city. I felt grown up, and the pay was pretty good too. I learned stuff. Stuff about money, and the money markets. How to buy Yen when the market closed in Japan, and then to hang on to sell it until the market opened in New York. Not real money, in the physical sense. Numbers on a computer screen, with some in red, others in green, and many in white. There were plus and minus signs, graphs, trends, and predictions. I was a junior in the section dealing with predictions. Millions made or lost in the course of a working day. Stress on steroids.
I looked over their shoulders, listened in on their phone calls. Always learning.
They worked late, so I stayed late. Even though I didn’t have to. Three years later, and I was sitting in front of a screen wearing a headset. I was talking to customers and agents, buying and selling international currency as if I knew what I was talking about.
And fortunately, I did.
Before Becky, there were a couple of others. We flashed our money around back then, and could often take our pick of the Essex girls who were also hanging around after work, or sometimes the posh birds looking for a bit of rough. I got regular with a girl named Charly who it turned out lived quite close to me. I thought her name was short for Charlotte at first, but it turned out her parents had actually called her Charly.
She was big on fake tan and tattoos, and spent over half her salary on beauty treatments and clothes. Her parents treated her like an Essex princess, and she acted like one too. I had learned to drive in college, and finally had enough money to get a car. But it sat on the driveway of the house all week, as it was no good even thinking about driving into work. So I used it at weekends to take Charly around, and her destination of choice was usually Lakeside shopping centre, or the snazzy one called Bluewater, across the river in Kent.
It seemed perfectly normal for her to want to spend every date in a shopping mall, as we could also see a film, and have a meal there. But getting together for sex was tricky. No chance in her house, and awkard in mine, even though I knew they wouldn’t say anything if she stopped over. So it had to be a quickie in the car, mostly in the sports ground car park near where I lived. Then after six months, her dad had a word with me about where we were going to live when we got married. He was thinking about an extension over the garage, he told me, and said it was ours if we wanted it.
I ran a mile after that. Well not literally, I worked out a plan for her to chuck me. Started by saying I wasn’t well and missing two dates. Then forgetting to ring her when I said I would. I waited to deliver the killer blow one night when I left her at home waiting for me to pick her up. When I was half an hour late, she rang me, and I said I had to meet an old mate. Well, a princess like her isn’t going to be messed about, so she told me. And at least I gave her the satisfaction of being able to convince herself she broke up with me.
That did make me realise something though. I needed my own place. I earned enough to get a mortgage, and I had the ten percent deposit saved, as my mum never took anything off me for living at home. She said she wouldn’t, as long as I saved it up for something sensible. Well a one-bedroom starter home in Beckton was sensible enough, and that was what I bought. My own dedicated parking space, open-plan ground floor with a small patio garden, and a bedroom with en-suite upstairs. Then I could get the DLR into work, and have an extra twenty minutes in bed.
My parents helped with furniture and stuff, and my dad took a week off to paint all the walls and ceilings for me. My first night alone in my own house felt really weird. I sat out on the patio and ate a pizza from its box, washed down with two beers. Beckton was a soulless development, with little going for it. But it would do me for now.
I found out that fending for myself was bloody expensive. Electric bills, council tax, water rates, all on top of the mortgage. I stopped eating out after work, and started to be careful with money for the first time in my life. The guys in the office ribbed me about not going out for beers, but I knew that would end up with a meal, maybe a club, then a taxi home. I might be able to do that once a month, but not four nights a week, like those guys. Of course, they did most of it on credit cards, but if I used a card to buy anything, the debt started to play on my mind.
I settled for lonely nights in front of the telly, and Sunday dinners at my parents’ house. They praised me up for being sensible, but I felt like I had already given up, and got old before my time.
Then I met Justina.
I was staying late at work one night, trying to make a few grand for the bank with some stragglers. Those dealers who waited until the last moment, the time just before the operation changed over to our night shift guys who worked on the floor above. The last-minute deals were sometimes lucrative, as they would haggle less, and often drop down to as low as half a cent on the dollar commission on any subsequent profit. And it didn’t hurt that I was still logged on to my terminal at nine at night, when everyone else had left the floor.
That wouldn’t go unnoticed.
As I stood up and closed down the screen, I turned to reach for my jacket, and saw her standing right by the back wall. She was wearing a green tabard over a simple dress, and carrying one of those plastic things that hold spray bottles and cloths. Encouraged by my screen going dark, she walked forward. “Okay to clean now, please?” The accent sounded Russian, maybe Polish. I apologised for making her wait. I had never noticed any cleaners waiting before, but I was normally gone by eight.
She just smiled, and started spraying something on the nearest desk.
When I got across to the row of lifts, I turned back before pressing the button. I watched as she cleaned rythmically, her natural black hair shining in the lights left on by the terminal. Older than me, maybe thirty-five. Neither skinny, nor overweight. I pressed the button, and carried on looking. When the ding sounded to announce the lift had arrived, she turned and looked at me. I smiled, and she smiled back.
The next night I joined the guys for a quick beer after work, then went back into the building. Checking my watch, I hoped I had guessed right. I almost missed her, as she was just walking into the service corridor entrance as I got to my floor. She stopped when she saw me. “You forget something? I get it for you?” I smiled and told her that I had come looking for her, and would she give me her number, so I could call her to arrange a date. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be married, or have someone regular, and I was embarrassed as she hesitated. “Okay, I’m Justina. You can have my number sir”. I grinned like a kid, and told her my name was Francis, and she didn’t have to call me sir.
When I got my phone out, she called out the number loudly and slowly, as if to make sure I got it right. Then when I nodded, she took the phone out of my hand and checked it to make sure I had.
I rang her at five the next afternoon, and agreed to meet her on Saturday, though my heart sank when she told me she lived in Neasden. From Beckton to Neasden is a bad enough journey by public transport, but driving there would be a nightmare in shopping traffic. So I was very pleased when she suggested meeting in Trafalgar Square outside the National Gallery, by the steps. I wouldn’t have to drive, and with her suggested time of midday, we could make it into a long date. She was already there when I arrived, and suggested we go in to look at some paintings. As we went back up the steps, she held my arm, as if she had always been my girlfriend.
By the time we had walked across the bridge to see more paintings at the Hayward Gallery, then headed back to settle down for a drink in a pub on The Strand, I already knew that she was thity-seven, divorced, and from Lithuania. Despite her heavy accent, her English was fine. She had been to university in Vilnius, where she had studied English, got a degree, and then discovered there was no work. So she got married to the former boyfriend from her small town instead. She had been in London for over eight years, renting a room in a shared house, and doing crap jobs for minimum wage. I suggested a film in Leicester Square, then a Chinese meal in Soho after, and she nodded enthusiastically.
Between the film and the restaurant, I stopped in Newport Place and kissed her. She kissed me back.
As we waited for the crispy duck pancakes to arrive, I looked across at her, and she blushed.
That’s when I fell in love with her.
I wanted to send Justina home in a taxi, and offered to pay. But she got the late bus instead, after telling me she had really enjoyed herself, and would be very happy to see me again. Due to her punishing work routine, it was only weekends at first. She was up in the dark, to go into the city and clean in offices before they opened. Then she went home for a rest in the aftenoons, before doing it all again in offices that had just closed. I thought it must be an awful life, but she just shrugged and said it was a good way to make money, as it racked up a lot of hours. And she knew more about buses in London that I had ever learned.
The working week was now spent looking forward to seeing her at weekends. I deliberately avoided waiting around to see her at the office, just so she wouldn’t think I was getting creepy. By the end of the month, I had seen her three more times, and at the end of that date she brought up the question of sex. “You don’t ask me back to your house, Francis. What’s wrong? You don’t think Justina is attractive?”
I loved the way she pronounced my name. ‘Frannn-ssiss’.
After blabbering on a bit about not wanting to be pushy, and being respectful. I told her I didn’t want to rush things, and was waiting until she was ready. She had an answer for that. “Well I am your girlfriend, no? And I am ready now”.
Everything about that night seemed natural, and perfectly normal. Neither of us had anything to prove, nor sought to impress with stamina or showy antics. It was as if we had always been together, and for the first time in my life I made love instead of having sex. She was relaxed and unembarrassed around me. Walking around the bedroom naked, and using the bathroom without closing the door. I loved that closeness, that easy familiarity.
Over breakfast the next morning, she sat grinning at me wearing one of my sweatshirts. She wiped her mouth using the back of her hand, and stared straight into my eyes. “I think you really love your Justina, I feel it’s true”. I might usually get fed up up with someone referring to themself using their own name, but in her case it was just so cute. I told her she was right, and her wide mouth spread into a huge smile. “Then good. Because Justina loves you too. Very much”.
After that, we didn’t have to keep saying it. We both had the confidence of knowing it just was.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before I suggested that she move in, and try to get a job with better hours. I looked online and found that Newham Council were looking for bilingual classroom assistants. The pay worked out about the same, but the hours were far more civilised. I helped her with the application forms, and she got an interview. When she took time off from her cleaning job to go to it, they didn’t pay her. Luckily, she passed the vetting process to work with children, and was offered a job. It made her so happy, and she kept telling me she had never even thought about applying for anything else before.
The Sunday before she was due to start, I drove her over to her room in Neasden to collect her stuff. She didn’t want me to go inside with her, so I waited in the car parked a few doors up the street. Forty-five minutes later, she appeared carrying two large carrier bags, and a big sports holdall. That was it. Nothing else. All those years working and living in London, and that was all she had to take with her.
The drive back was tiring, with solid traffic everywhere, even on the short cuts I had worked out. Justina reached over the gearstick and squeezed my knee all the way home, her arm moving up and down as I changed gear. When I finally pulled into my parking space at close to six at night, she turned and gave me a serious look. I wondered if she had regrets about leaving her friends in the shared house, but she wasn’t thinking about that at all.
“Thank you, Francis. You have changed my life”.
It might have been the first time I had lived with a girlfriend, but Justina settled in very happily, and very quickly too. Her relaxed attitude made me feel very pleased about having asked her to move in. She had her buses to and from work sorted, and when I got home the next evening, she was already cooking a delicious meal with ingredients bought on the way back from her induction course. She was animated, and excited to tell me how good the course was, how nice the other new entrants were, and how she was looking forward to starting in schools.
As we ate, I mentioned that she didn’t have to contribute to rent or bills. I was already managing okay, and if she was prepared to just buy some of the food, that would be fine with me. She decided that she would buy all of the food, and suggested a big supermarket shop at the weekend, using the car. By the time we had settled down on the sofa to watch an old film, I had decided that living with a confident older woman was a very comfortable situation indeed.
What I liked most about her was her cultural interests. I had never paid much attention to Art, and my idea of a holiday had been two weeks sweltering on a beach in Spain or Greece. In her forthright way, Justina drew me in to her interests, and we started to visit galleries and exhibitions at weekends, also going to watch foreign films in the West End cinemas. Despite my curiosity, I avoided quizzing her about her past, though she asked me lots of questions about my previous girlfriends. She would nod or shake her head as I told her about those relationships, often adding comments like, “Not Justina. She won’t be doing that”.
One saturday morning I woke up early, needing the toilet. It was just after six, and she wasn’t in bed next to me. I could hear her voice though, and when I looked out of the window, I saw her in the small garden, talking on her phone. She was frowning, and her voice fluctuated between what seemed to be frustration, followed by anger. I couldn’t understand what she was saying though, as she was speaking in Lithuanian. Or it might have been Russian, for all I knew. I went downstairs later, and she was already cooking some pancakes for breakfast. She suggested we get to the supermarket early, then maybe drive out to the Essex coast for the afternoon.
On the way to Frinton that lunchtime, I was very tempted to mention the phone call. But I let it go.
Every time I glanced round at her during the journey, she was looking at me with a warm and happy grin. There was something else too, and as I looked for a space in the pay and display car park, I found the word I was looking for. Knowing. It was as if she knew we were just right, perhaps even meant to be.
The week before, I had taken her to meet my parents, and have the traditional Sunday roast. My mum went overboard with the food, even serving a starter, and enough different vegetables for ten people. They took to her immediately, and when Justina insisted on helping my mum clear away and wash up, dad grinned at me and gave her a double thumbs-up. I had asked my mum not to interrogate her about her past, and not to mention the age difference either. Amazingly, she managed to avoid doing either. As we left that day, mum pulled me in to kiss my cheek, and whispered in my ear. “She’s so lovely, don’t mess this up”.
The new job was everything she had hoped. She got to speak her own language, and Russian too, which she was fluent in. The kids she helped translate for and worked in class with all took to her immediately, and she came home every night with stories about how much she loved what she was doing now. She still gave me all the credit for getting her the job, and I am a bit ashamed to say that I was happy to take it. She always got home from work before me, and had a meal on the go when I got in. So I decided that we would have a takeaway meal on Fridays, and go out to eat somewhere on Saturdays, to give her time away from the kitchen.
The next Friday, I drove the short distance to collect an Indian meal. But when I got home, I found her sobbing inconsolably, kneeling on the carpet.
I was so shocked, I dropped the curry on the floor.
When I finally managed to calm her down, I got to hear what was wrong. Her grandmother had died in the town where she came from, and she had been very close to her. It had been her ex-husband who had called to tell her, as he had got the number from her grandfather. I was a bit surprised at just how upset she was, to be honest. I had cried when all of my grandparents had died, but nothing like the display of grief I had just witnessed. I put it down to different culture or whatever, and suggested that she go up and wash her face while I made her something to drink.
As soon as she came down, she asked me to look online for flights to Lithuania, insisting that she had to go home. I told her it wouldn’t look good with her new job, but she didn’t care, and said she would take some urgent leave due to bereavement. She even started to send her work an email as I was looking at flights. I found a one-way flight from Luton Airport leaving the next afternoon, and she reserved that, paying online with her bank card. Then she asked if I would drive her to the airport, and of course I agreed. The curry was dumped, and I cleaned up the stuff that had leaked as best I could. Justina went upstairs to pack, refusing all offers of food, and I settled for six slices of toast instead of the anticipated Indian feast.
On the way to the airport, I tried to chat about her grandparents in a friendly way, and also asked about her parents. She had already told me her mum was dead, and had been divorced from her dad, who Jusitna had never really known. Apparently, her grandmother had more or less raised her, and the shock of her death had hit her hard. She wanted to get back to her town to help out her grandfather with the funeral, and make sure he was okay. I would like to have askd her a lot more, but she kept crying, so I left it.
In the short time we had been togther, I had deliberately avoided probing into her background. If it was going to work, I had to trust her. There had been some questions that day I took her to Neasden to collect her stuff. Like why wasn’t I allowed in, and why she hardly had any personal posessions. I hadn’t asked them at the time, so I wasn’t about to go backwards now. When we got to Luton, there seemed no point in parking, then hanging around until her flight left. So, I just dropped her outside the terminal, and she kissed me goodbye as she grabbed the holdall off the back seat. “Francis, thank you. I will phone you soon”. At least she hadn’t said “Justina will phone you”.
Then she went into the building, without looking back.
I didn’t hear anything later that night, and spent Sunday worrying that she was alright. That was a new experience for me, missing someone. I gave in at six that night, and sent her a text. Nothing heavy, just checking that she was okay. By the time I went to bed, there was no reply, and I didn’t get to sleep easily.
On the Monday, I phoned my mum, and told her the news. She said all the right things, then told me to leave Justina alone for a couple of days, to let her sort things out. Going home to the house to be on my own felt strange. How soon I had got used to walking in to the smell of food cooking, and a welcome hug and kiss. The place felt small and cold without her standing there, so I phoned up for a pizza delivery and sat checking my phone as I waited for it to arrive. I had eaten three of the four sections when a beep from the phone made me jump, and I grabbed it as if someone was tryng to steal it.
To say I was disappointed with the text was an understatement.
“Dear Francis. The journey was fine, funeral on Thursday. I am busy. Justina. xx”
Not what I had expected from someone I lived with, and claimed to be in love with me. Three beers later, I just rang her number. I knew I was going to get angry if I didn’t speak to her.
It went straight to answerphone.
On the Thursday, I sent a polite text message, hoping the funeral had gone well. I had resolved to not ring her again until she rang me, and my mind was racing with all the possibilities of why she had not contacted me as she had promised. My first thought was that she had got back with her ex, drawn together by the family bereavement. And I had that other earlier phone call on my mind too. This was a new experience for me, a combination of concern and jealousy resulting in an emotion I had never had before.
By the time I got in from work, my ideas were getting more and more random. Perhaps she was connected with the Russian Mafia? You read about how they got people involved in trafficking for prostitution, even drug-smuggling. The Justina I had already become so close to didn’t seem to be the sort of woman who would do anything like that though.
But you never know.
When I got up on Friday, I was more upset than worried. How hard could it be to phone me? How long would it have taken to just say hello? If we were going to be together long-term, then surely we would have to discuss things like her family, and even the prospect of me travelling over to meet them. I walked into the office having resolved not to become some sort of doormat boyfriend, and phoned Luke during a coffee break to arrange a visit to his flat that night. He was pleased to hear from me, and talked about food deliveries, lots of beers, and a new computer game.
Luke had done so well at university, companies were contactng him based on his degree and the projects he had been involved in. He didn’t have to apply for a job, just choose from the ones on offer. During his time at Warwick, he had invented some innovative apps that could be used on mobile phones, as well as a PC. One time, he had even been featured on a BBC News report about the bright young things of British computer science. American companies had come calling after he graduated, but Luke was a home bird. He took a job with a new app developing outfit starting up in Shoreditch, and had a salary package as well as a share in the company.
Very soon, he was earning a mint, and had bought the small flat not far from where he worked. Like many of those techy nerds at the time, you would never have known from looking at him just how successful he was.
Unless you saw him driving around in his seventy-grand car.
After work, I jumped a cab to his place, and overcame my objection to the mess and smell to have a boys night in. We drank too much beer, played computer games I soon tired of, and stuffed our faces with pizza, garlic bread, and dough balls. He was still trying to finish a level when I passed out on the sofa.
My phone woke me up. I had turned off the answerphone function earlier that week, so it kept ringing until I answered it.
Justina sounded a little upset, speaking quickly. “Francis, I will be home tonight, landing at Stanstead. Can you pick me up?” I wanted to launch into a barrage of questions, and tell her off for not contacting me. Instead, I asked her to text me the flight number and arrival time. She could obviously sense I was deliberately being off with her. “I will tell you everything when we get home, darling. We will have a long talk tonight, I promise”. I stayed frosty, and just said I would meet her at the arrivals.
Not bothering to wake Luke, I just left, still in my crumpled suit, and yesterday’s shirt. I managed to flag down a cab in Shoreditch High Street at the junction with Bethnal Green Road, and had to get the driver to stop at a bank machine on the way to get the money out for the fare. After a shower and a change into something less formal, I checked my phone.
I had four hours to kill before her flight landed.
Deciding not to hang around at home and chance any traffic, I drove to the airport early. I had something to eat in the terminal, and browsed the shops there too. Even after doing all that, and going for an extra coffee, I still had too much time before the plane landed. I had been standing right at the front of the arrivals gate for a long time before Justina emerged, her face spreading in a smle as she saw me.
On the way home in the car, I was being deliberately cool. I asked if she wanted to stop for something to eat, but she shook her head. “Lets’ get back to the house, Francis. Don’t be angry, please. I will tell you everything when we get back, I promise”.
Once we were sitting down on the sofa, she drew up her shoulders. “So this is my story, please let me tell you it, without interruption. It will answer all your worries”.
She talked for around an hour, and I tried my best to keep my expression neutral, though raised eyebrows and the odd shake of the head brought small tears to the corners of her eyes. When she had finished, she took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “Well?”
The short version of what she said started with the trip to Neasden, and the angry phone call. It seemed the people she was renting the room in the house from were also Lithuaninan, and knew her family back there. They had come to depend on her rent, and were angry when she told them she was moving out. She hadn’t wanted me to come into the house and witness any argument she had with them that day. Then the phone call I had overheard was from her sister in Lithuania. The couple from Neasden had grassed her up, and her sister had got on the phone to complain that she was stitching up the old family friends by moving in with me and denying them her rent.
I was thinking that wasn’t such a big deal, when she hit me with the real truth about her.
She had two children, who had been living with her grandparents in Lithuania. Her whole reason for moving to England to work was to be able to send money home every week to pay for their keep. Since coming to London, she had only been back three or four times, and usually only managed a long weekend. She showed me photos of them on her phone. A boy who was almost fourteen, and a twelve year old girl who looked uncannily like Justina. She told me that she was intending to tell me about them, when and if our relationship worked out once we were living together.
But with the unexpected death of her grandmother, everything had changed. Her sister had moved in to help for a while, but she had her own life to lead. As her elderly grandfather could never be expected to cope, Justina had no option but to move back, and look after them as best as she was able. The flight home had already been booked, and she was leaving in four days time. She had already resigned from her new job by email, telling them about her family situation and apologising. There was no possibility of moving her kids to England. They were doing okay in school over there, and neither spoke enough English to get by here. Besides, Justina could not afford the rent on anywhere big enough for all of them, and it would leave her grandfather stuck alone too.
After all the weird things I had been imagining, all the jealousy and worry, it had come down to having two kids, and choosing not to tell me about them. She didn’t ask me to help in any way, never suggested that we might make a family home for them together, or even that I go with her to Lithuania and start a new life. She knew that was never going to happen, and so did I.
The next few days were strange. I felt almost like a condemned man as the days counted down to her departure. We made love a lot, and never talked about the future. Keeping in touch was never discussed, and me visiting her in Lithuania at some stage didn’t come up in conversation either. She cried a lot, but I didn’t. I still loved her, but a profound sense of distrust had crept in, and was eating away at me. The day before she was due to leave, I gave her the money for a taxi to the airport.
I wasn’t going to say goodbye to her at the terminal again.
Being on my own again was something I adapted to quickly enough. Not that I was over Justina, far from it. She is someone I will never get over. The first woman I truly loved.
The dating scene at the time was going through a huge change, driven by mobile phones. The guys at work were showing me photos on their phones of girls who had matched them as possibles or definites, and it felt as if everyone was dating someone different most nights of the week. Just going to a bar in a group, chatting up some girls and getting a name and phone number no longer seemed to be happening. It was so ‘last year’.
I did try it, and more than once. Sitting opposite an attractive girl who spent most of the date looking at her phone, talking to friends on her phone, or taking photos of what she was about to eat. Others told me about how many dates they had been on that month, what their ratings were on the dating apps, or sneered at my old phone for being out of date. This was the start of something that was about to change the way everyone dated, whether they were twenty-one or seventy one.
And I didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Then something happened that made dating seem unimportant. We got hit with the big financial crash. While traders were not exactly jumping out of windows in despair, many of them were making downcast exits from the office, holding cardboard boxes full of personal stuff, and escorted by security, as a ‘formality’. That was the time of paranoia. Nobody had any friends anymore, and we were getting a crick in our necks from looking over our shoulders. Some banks had to be bailed out by the government, and many other financial institutions just collapsed.
Looking back, I suppose I was lucky to be working for one bank that never needed a bailout. I was also low enough down the pecking order that my salary didn’t warrant them having to do away with me. In the midst of the whirlwind that was sweeping through The City of London, I survived. House prices were tumbling, and houses were being repossessed. That sadness for home owners spelt out profits for anyone with the guts to cash in on it.
I was sent for retraining, and then moved to the mortgage department, six floors below. I had to start again from scratch, but my salary was the same, less the occasional big bonuses, and I had a job. I breathed a sigh of relief the day I started back, as most of the faces I had known around that huge office building had vanished. Those of us that were left kept our heads down, and worked hard. I had a good few years invested in the pension scheme, and every intention of sticking it out as long as I could.
One day I got a text from some of those who had been let go. They were having a farewell drink in Soho, and I was invited. I wasn’t that bothered, but one of them was my former floor manager, a nice guy who had given me recommendations for promotion. I replied that I would be there. At least it was a Friday, so I wouldn’t have to get up for work the next day.
By ten that night, I was already on the way to getting really drunk, and when someone suggested moving on to another bar I cheered the idea along with the rest. Wandering through Chinatown on the way, some idiot decided to start playing football with a discarded can, and I heard a shout of “On your head, Frankie”. Of course, I missed the can completely, and my enthusiastic jerk of the head connected with the underside of a metal fire escape instead. The next thing I remembered was my suit and shirt covered in blood, and two of the guys arguing with a taxi driver about taking me to hospital. One of them calmed him down by stuffing a few tenners through the window, and a few minutes later, I arrived at University College Hospital.
A Friday night in any London Emergency Department is always going to be busy. Luckily, I had got in before the big rush later on, so only had to wait for an hour. I was seen by a male nurse who told me I would need stitches and an X-ray. He stuck a flat bandage on my head, and told me to wait outside again to be called through. The first call was well over another hour later, and by then the place was filling up. I was taken down a corridor and X-rayed in a room, then sent out to wait again.
By the time I heard my name called for the third time, it was close to two in the morning, and I was struggling to stay awake. It made me jump as I heard it, and I stood up fast, steadying myself on the metal seat back.
There she was, beautiful red hair flaming in the lights, and such a lovely smile.
I followed the ginger-haired nurse into her room, and gazed at her green eyes as she asked me questions. I was trying to focus on her name badge, and finally worked out that it read ‘R. Maclaren’. Ignoring her question about whether or not I had lost consciousness, I asked her what the ‘R’ stood for. She carried on without answering, looking at the cut with a slim torch, and telling me I was going to need stitches. The rest was a blur, to be honest. The combination of beer and a long day had kicked in, and I was having trouble keeping it together.
There were some small injections, and I had to lie down on a small bed. A feeling of pulling above my left eyebrow, as I ran my eyes up and down the blue surgical clothes she was wearing. I mostly remembered her teeth, which were white and even, and that hair of course. I didn’t feel any pain until I got the Tetanus injection in the top of my right buttock. That seemed to snap me back, and I stupidly just blurted out a request for her phone number. My speech was slurred, and I must have looked like shit, and stunk of beer. She politely told me that she made it a rule never to date any patients she treated, as she stuck something over the stitches.
Then she gave me a sheet of information about head injuries, and said I should see my own doctor to get the stitches removed. The next thing I knew I was standing in the car park, shivering in the early morning air. When a taxi dropped someone at the entrance, I walked over and asked if he would take me home. Seeing as I looked like I had been on a battlefield, I thought he might decline. But he smiled and nodded. It was late that night when I woke up. My head was throbbing, and I took a long hot bath thinking about that nurse. As I ate my way through half a loaf of bread and four eggs later, I hatched a plan.
That Sunday, I spruced myself, looking as best as I could with a big white bandage stuck to my face. After a microwave meal early evening, I drove into town, and parked around the back of Euston Station on a meter bay. After half past six, and on Sundays, you didn’t have to pay to park there. I walked up to the Tesco Express on the main road, and bought all the bunches of flowers still for sale in the buckets outside, along with a very big box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. I also got a blank card, with an abstract design on it. Using a sheet of wrapping paper brought from home, I combined all the bunches into one huge bunch of flowers, and wrote a little message on the card.
‘Sorry about last night. I would still like to know what the ‘R’ stands for, and maybe you could give me your number, now I am not a patient you are treating?’ I signed it ‘Frankie’, and wrote ‘For Nurse R. Maclaren’ on the envelope. I waited in the short queue to get to the reception desk, and when I handed it all over, the elderly woman grinned at her colleague on the next seat. “Pop out the back and give these to Becky, would you?” She looked back up at me and said, “I suppose you had better sit down and wait”. I sat down with a grin. I knew the answer to that ‘R’ now. Rebecca.
Five minutes went by, and the second receptionist returned with the card I had sent through. “Becky says she is too busy, but she wrote something in this”. I thanked her, and walked outside, slipping the card out to read it immediately. ‘Thanks for the flowers and chocolates. Here’s a number you can get me on, but I am making no promises. Best to text first, as I never know when I can answer the phone. B.’ I put the number into my phone straight away, and walked back to the car with a smile so wide it made my face ache.
And I was patient. I didn’t text her until I was on my way to work the next morning.
It was my only experience of trying to get a date with someone who worked shifts. My first few texted suggestions were met with simple ‘Sorry, working’ replies, and I started to think I should just stop messaging her. Ten days later, I got a text on the way home from work on a Friday. It was from her, with the address of a social club in North London, and one line after. ‘I’ll be there at 7 if you can make it, B’.
I got off the train at the next stop, and left the station to try to hail a taxi. It was already almost eight, and the venue was a long way from where I was. As the cab tried all the short cuts to get through the traffic, I watched the hefty fare ticking up on the meter, and wondered about why a young woman went to a community social club on a Friday night. When we got there, I used my card to pay the cabbie, or it would have cleared out all the cash in my wallet. I often had reason to be pleased about the introduction of card payments in London taxis.
I could hear the noise as I approached the club entrance, and from the balloons outside, I guessed a celebration was in progress. An old man sat at a table inside the door asked me if I was a member, and I shook my head and told him I was meeting Becky. I used her full name. He smiled, obviously knowing who she was, and pointed at the double doors. I walked in to what looked like a night out in Glasgow, at least as I imagined it. The room was festooned with Scottish flags, banners supporting Rangers football team, and a massive sign above a guy doing a disco that read ‘Happy 70th Archie’.
One thing about Becky, she was easy to spot. Twirling around on the dance floor in a fetching green party dress, her red hair catching the lights flashing from the front of the disco setup. I watched her for a while, and she suddenly spotted me. She ran across, her shoeless feet slipping on the polished dance floor. As soon as she spoke, I could tell she was already a bit drunk. She yelled loudly next to my ear, above the noise of the music. “Ah, you made it. It’s my uncle’s birthday party. Get a drink and come and join us. The bar’s free”.
Once I had got my beer, I turned to see her waving from a table over on the left, and made my way across. She patted an empty chair next to her, and I sat on it. The faces around the table were all pretty old ones. I guessed the youngest two sitting there were both over fifty. Cupping her hands around her mouth, Becky bellowed. “Everyone, this is Frankie”. I grinned and nodded, which is about the only thing to do in those situations where the music is playing so loudly conversation is impossible. Then I sat there like a spare part for an hour, feeling hungry. It was a very long way from my idea of a first date with Becky.
When the DJ took a break, I was introduced to the two youngest people on the table, who turned out to be Becky’s parents. Neither of them had a Scottish accent, but her mum called me ‘laddie’, and her dad referreed to me as ‘son’. Then Archie appeared, and I met the birthday boy. He winked at Becky. “Is this your fella, sweetheart?” She looked me up and down as if I was a racehorse. “He might be, uncle Archie. Let’s see how he works out”. Even Archie didn’t have a Scottish accent, but there was no doubt that everyone there considered themselves to be as Scottish as anyone north of the border. That was confirmed when some bagpipe music started up, and they all started whooping and clapping.
Fortunately, Becky slipped on her shoes, and said we had to be somewhere. She waved goodbye to her parents, and kissed Archie on the cheek. As we got out into the fresh night air, she said she was hungry, and couldn’t stand the stodgy party food. She suggested a Greek place she knew that stayed open late, and we could walk to it. After a few steps in awkward silence, she turned and laughed.
“You actually came to that social club. And you sat it out without complaining, or getting up and leaving. It was sort of a test, and if you are interested to know, you passed it”.
With that, she reached across and held my hand.
As she stuffed pitta bread covered in hummus into her mouth, Becky wasted no time telling me the short version of her life story. She was Scottish, (of course, but not really) and had an older brother who was living and working in Holland. She had always wanted to be a nurse, and had done nothing else. She loved working in Accident and Emergency because of the variety, and intended to stay in that speciality. There had been one serious boyfriend in her life, from the age of fifteen at school, until they were both twenty-two.
The relationship had survived university, and she had expected to eventually get engaged, and married. But they didn’t survive a New Year’s Eve party when she had to work, and he ended up sleeping with her best friend. She lost both of them that night. Since then, she had been on a couple of dates, and had sex with one random bloke she met at a dinner party. Swallowing some more pitta, she looked at me across the table. “And you?”
I told her the truth about my love life, or lack of it, finishing up with the sorry saga of Justina and her two kids in Lithuania. After sipping some of her Demestica, she nodded. “I believe you”. I wanted to reply to that, but let it go. During the main course, she chatted about work. Her work. Then it dawned on her to ask me what I did, and when I mentioned banking and mortgages, her eyes glazed over a bit. Her considered reply was, “Oh well, I suppose someone has to sort out mortgages, and I’m sure it pays better than my job”.
I suggested a dessert, and she shook her head violently. “No, I think we should go back to mine for sex. I don’t know you well enough to risk going to your place”. I was completely floored. I would never have expected sex on that first date, let alone suggested it. But I certainly wasn’t going to turn down her offer.
She gave her address to the cabbie, and on the way she was upbeat. “I hope you don’t think badly of me, Frankie. But as far as I am concerned, if I like you enough to spend time with you, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t have sex. Do you agree?” I nodded, having no idea what to say. As we got close to her place, she suddenly remembered something. “Have you got condoms? I don’t have any at the flat”. I nodded again. There was one in my wallet, and now I was worried about her use of the plural.
Despite my intention to settle the fare, she insisted on paying for the taxi, and I surveyed the big house on a main road in Chalk Farm as she sorted out the money.
Becky shared the place with two others who worked at the same hospital. They had the top floor, plus the attic extension. Although the inside was rather shabby, the age of the building provided large rooms, with huge windows. After walking up the stairs with her carrying her shoes, we entered the flat to hear some shouting coming from a television. Off the wide interior hallway, an open door led into a massive living room, where three saggy and battered sofas surrounded a square coffee table, opposite a very large plasma-screen TV.
Two women were sprawled over each other on the centre sofa, with the head of one resting in the lap of the other. The one lying down was introduced to me as Fliss, and I was told she was a radiographer. She grinned and waved. The other one was called Jackie, a nurse who worked on the Coronary Care Ward. She looked older, maybe thirty-five, and spoke with a Northern Irish accent. Fliss was enromously fat, and she filled her Primark pyjamas to the extent that it seemed she might soon burst out of them, like overripe fruit. Becky sensed my akwardness, and confirmed what I was wondering. “They are a couple, as you can see”. Then she grabbed my hand and led me back out and down the hall into her room.
Inside, her large room overlooking the garden resembled a rubbish tip for clothes. Piles of tights, underwear, and socks were dotted around, and various pairs of shoes and boots seemed to be lying where they had been thrown, some with crumpled jeans on top of them. The doors of the old double wardrobe were wide open, unable to be closed because of the sheer number of items inside. She made no apology for the state of the place, as she turned her back to me, and knelt on the bed.
“Unzip me please, Frankie”.
I was woken up the next morning by Becky softly saying my name, and the smell of coffee. She was kneeling naked on the bed, and smiling. “It’s real coffee, but there’s no sugar. Nobody takes sugar, sorry”. I told her that was fine, and sipped the hot drink, wishing it had just a little milk in it. She didn’t mention anything about the previous night, and adopted a businesslike tone. “Sorry to sound like I’m rushing you off, but I am on nights tonight, and have to do loads of washing and stuff later. So when you finish your coffee, is it alright if you get ready and leave? There’s a new toothbrush in a packet on the sink, and don’t worry about Jackie and Fliss, they are already both at work”.
To be honest, I did feel as if I was being rushed off, but kept my cool and asked her about another date. “Of course I want another date. I’m not a one-night stand sort of girl. Well, except for that one time I told you about, but I’m not proud of that. Trouble is, I have to do five twelve-hour nights, so it won’t be for a while. Is that okay with you?”
Nodding through a sip of coffee, I removed the cup and told her it was fine with me. “Great. Then maybe next time I can stay at yours? Make a weekend of it, go out and do something. Text me your address, and I will make my way over next Friday night. What time do you get back from work?” I told her I would make sure to be home before eight, and she leaned over and kissed me. “Okay, next Friday at eight it is”. As soon as the coffee cooled down, I gulped the rest of it, and quickly used the bathroom. By the time I was dressed and ready to go, she was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, kneeling down piling clothes into a washing machine in the surprisingly small kitchen.
She didn’t get up to say goodbye, just turned and smiled. “See you Friday then”.
As I travelled home by train, I was thinking about how matter of fact she seemed. I definitely had a new girlfriend, but her job made it certain that I wouldn’t be seeing that much of her. I wondered if I should have said more. Told her how pretty she was, and how she looked as good in jeans and a sweatshirt as she did in a party dress. I could have told her she had captivating eyes, or wonderful hair. I decided against all that. She didn’t seem to be the sort of girl who needed it, or wanted it.
Becky had a self-confidence that I wasn’t really used to. But I liked that about her.
The week went by slowly. I tried not to keep looking at my phone, and resisited the urge to text her. Then on Thursday, I got a text early, and spotted it when I was just out of the shower. ‘Hi Frankie! Looking forward to seeing my boyfriend tomorrow. Excited! B. xx’ I felt my stomach lurch, and the grin spreading across my face. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t sent her the address, so quickly typed that to her, and added that I was equally excited, and really looking forward to seeing her. I thought about offering travel instructions, but decided that she was too independent for that, and would find my house easily enough.
And she did.
Any worries I might have had about how I should play it were dispelled by her giving me a huge hug and kiss after dropping a large holdall on the doormat. She kicked off her shoes, handed me her jacket, and strolled into the house as if she had been there many times before. Perching on the sofa, she called out as I hung up her coat. “If you’re offering, I will have a very large glass of wine. Don’t care what colour it is”. I went and poured two big measures of a decent Chianti, and as I walked over to the sofa, she carried on chatting animatedly. “Is that your car outside? Great. If it’s okay with you, could we go to a beach somewhere tomorrow? I haven’t been to a beach for ages. I know the weather isn’t up to much, but what the hell. It’s a beach!”
When I sat down next to her, she grabbed her wine, and swung her legs up across my lap in a very natural way. Looking around my tiny house, she beamed a big smile.
“I love it here. Feels like home”.
It hadn’t escaped my notice that Becky was what some people refer to as controlling. She decided when we went to bed that night, and also that we had to get up early to drive to the beach. Then she suggested that it would be nice to go out for a Chinese meal when we got home, although she did insist on paying for it. I wasn’t really that bothered, to be honest. She was good company, the sex was great, and she was easy to be around. The fact that she was very nice to look at didn’t hurt either.
After the shock of what had happened with Justina, I also enjoyed the fact that Becky was very open about things. She wanted to stay in the flat with her friends, was in no rush to settle down and get married, and had already decided she didn’t want any children. Her brother had three kids, so her parents had enough grandchildren to fuss over. When I mentioned that she might like to meet my mum and dad at some stage, she nodded. “Fine with me”. During the Chinese meal, she had made just one stipualtion about us being together.
“Frankie, just one thing. I don’t do open relationships. I know my work makes it hard for regular dates, but if you want to see other girls besides me, I can’t be doing with that. For my part, I guarantee I will not see anyone else while you are my boyfriend. I don’t mean friends, I mean women you might have sex with. Is that acceptable to you? Because if not, it’s a deal-breaker”. I thought that was fair enough, and extended a hand, making a little joke about formalising that agreement by a binding handshake, then insisting on hooking our pinky fingers together to make it official.
That Sunday, she didn’t have to be anywhere. I had a loose arrangement to go to my parents for lunch, so sent mum a text that I was seeing someone, and wouldn’t be coming. I offered to drive Becky home, by way of a trip to London Zoo. I wondered if she might think that childish, but she squealed with delight. “The Zoo! Fabulous! I haven’t been there since I was really small”. Secretly pleased with myself at my bright idea, I added that we could go for Tapas in Camden Town after. She gave me a huge kiss. “Tapas, and The Zoo! It’s like you already know me so well”.
We used to look back on that day as one of the best days. The weather played ball, and we had fun looking at the animals. After that, we walked around the lake in Regent’s Park, and she held on to me as if I was trying to escape. Then we wandered up to Inverness Street for tapas, and she talked about wanting to visit Barcelona one day. She hadn’t been on many foreign holidays, as they mainly went to Holland to visit her brother. There were bad memories of one trip to Greece with her long-term boyfriend, as he had got the shits on the second day, and they spent almost all of their time there inside a cheap hostel.
I could have rushed in and suggested that I would take her to Barcelona, but I stayed calm. As we were walking back to the car, she suggested it instead. “How would you feel about us going to Barcelona, Frankie? We could make a long weekend of it, before the place gets packed with tourists in the summer”. I nodded and casually replied that it sounded good. I told her I would definitely think about it.
Inside, I was leaping with joy.
Ouside her house, I kept acting casual. I didn’t ask to go in, and didn’t act like it was expected. She kissed me goodbye in the car, and got out clutching the holdall. Holding the door open a long time, it seemed she didn’t want to leave. I was told a list of her forthcoming shifts that I knew I would never remember, and she made me promise to text her when I got home, to let her know I had arrived safely. I laughed and told her I was only driving to Beckton, and she gave me a friendly punch on the leg.
On the way back along East India Dock Road, I was feeling happy. It was working out fine.
Following the Zoo date, things moved on for us. Although Becky’s job made meeting up hard, she got around that by suggesting I stay at her place when she was on early shift. We both got back there around the same time, and I soon got used to Fliss and Jackie when they were there. Fliss was actually very amusing, self-deprecatingly hilarious in the way that some very fat girls are. Jackie was okay, but wary of me, as Fliss used to date men before meeting her. I would have liked to have told her that there was no danger of me trying to get off with Fliss, but didn’t want to appear rude.
What started with me bringing a few toiletries and a change of clothes ended with me having my own space for stuff in Becky’s wardrobe. I laughed out loud when she showed me the three-inch gap that she had managed to create for me, and usually hung my things on a hook on the back of the door instead. She certainly didn’t get any tidier in honour of my presence, and creeping out during the night to pee, I had to be very careful to not trip over the usual piles of her stuff. Most weeks, I was there at least three nights, and when her shifts had finished, Becky would usually stay at mine for three in return.
Fortunately, she didn’t mess up my place quite as badly, but some nights when I got home from work, I would find the small house a lot worse than I had ever left it.
And she got to meet my parents one Sunday, for the usual blow-out lunch. My mum was excited to see her, and chatted as if she had always known her. But that was my mum all over. Dad was less impressed, it had to be said. I didn’t need to discuss it with him, as I had a good idea why. Becky didn’t rush to help to clear up. She didn’t bring anything, like wine, or flowers. And she talked a lot about her job. All the time. Despite his outward friendliness, he was something of a traditionalist, and he wasn’t used to young women like Becky. Not at all.
We also managed that long weekend in Barcelona, at the end of May. We both took enough time off to get there on the Friday, and come back on the Monday. Becky had a guide book, and a list of things she just had to see. The thought of relaxing on the city’s beach was very far from her mind, and we hit all the spots from just after breakfast, until they closed. Parc Guell, Tibidabo, the central market, Sagrada Familia, Gaudi Museum, up and down the Ramblas, and even the illuminated fountain at night. It was amazing what she managed to squeeze in to that short time, and she took countless photos on her phone too.
Despite all that rushing around, we had a great time. Staying at a small hotel in the old gothic quarter, and eating far too much tapas whenever we spotted a nice place. There was no sense of awkwardness at all, and it felt like one long wonderful date. On the plane home, she told me she was going to start a blog. I had heard about those, but didn’t know anyone who did one. She was going to call it ‘Becky and Frankie’s World’, and keep a record of everything we did together. I really liked the sound of that. It had a ring of permanace about it.
Once we got back, I finally got invited to visit her parents for dinner one Saturday night. It was a mare of a drive though, all the way out to Hertford. They had a nice house, bigger than my family home in Gidea Park, and it was full of expensive things. I was told to call her dad Dougie, and her mum Marie. I later found out that their names were Douglas and Maria, but they were sticking to their claimed Scottish background. I also discovered, much to my delight, that they hardly knew Scotland at all. Even their grandparents had been born in London, and although they had spent a two-week holiday near Loch Ness once, they hadn’t even been to Edinburgh. I never did get why they were so desperate to be Scottish, just because their name was Maclaren.
But I learned never to mention that to any of them.
There were times when I wondered why I had become so keen on Becky so quickly. I had to ask myself to be sure I wasn’t just latching on to the first girl to come along after Justina. There was that confidence, which was new and refreshing, but she also had a vulnerable side, and could be deeply affected by what she saw in her job. Awful injuries, dead children, all kinds of trauma and upset. That was her daily routine, in a busy Emergency Department of a hospital right in the centre of London. She was caring, kind, good-natured, yet professional. The ideal nurse.
Her colleagues liked her, and her managers thought highly of her. She had a large number of friends too, mostly nurses she had trained with, but others from her school days who had stayed in touch since. If you were to ask anyone to sum her up in one word, the likely answer would be ‘popular’. As her boyfriend, I saw that side of her, but also her other side too.
She was very sexy, without being slutty. Enjoying sex, and knowing what she liked, she wasn’t afraid to ask for it, or to regularly take the initiative. She was adventurous without being too kinky, and understanding when things didn’t always go as she might have expected. She paid her way on dates too. Although we balanced each other out when it came to staying over at hers or mine, she not only took her turn in paying for tickets, meals, or trips, but also insisted on contributing to petrol money when we used the car. She could drive, having passed her test at eighteen, but there was no point her having a car, considering where she lived, and where she worked in relation to that.
On a personal level she was untidy, but scrupulously clean. Her hair was amazing, as was her skin, and those green eyes. She could look fantastic dressed up to go on a night out, and just as wonderful in a T-shirt with no make-up and her hair all over the place. She was a career girl in a career worth having, liked by anyone you might meet. With the exception of my dad, who remained unconvinced.
Is it any wonder, that within six months, I thought I had found the perfect girl, and could no longer imagine life without her?
And I didn’t have to do that, as our relationship carried on getting better, until both of us felt connected in a different way to just being boyfriend/girlfriend. The routine forced on us by her shifts became normal. It just became our routine, and we didn’t have to think about it. If she got off late, it didn’t matter. I would sit and chat to Fliss and Jackie as if I was part of the gang. They accepted me as readily as Becky did. Even Jackie had calmed down, once she realised I had no intentions on Fliss.
By the end of our first year as a couple, we started to talk about the idea of living together. Beckton was never going to work for her. The commute into work was a pain, with too many changes of transport. She couldn’t use the car, because there was nowhere for the staff to park. Even though I had added her to my insurance so she could drive now and then, we knew that we had to move somewhere more convenient. My house had increased in value, but the price of even a small apartment closer to both our jobs was still prohibitive, and not even manageable on two salaries.
After long hours of discussing various options, marriage was mentioned in passing. At first, Becky casually let slip that her parents had money saved for her wedding, that could be put to good use if we took it as a deposit on a place instead. Then that changed to both parents stumping up together for a deposit, and a decent, but not excessively expensive wedding. When I mentioned engagement, she shook her head. That would mean a ring, and we could save that money to put towards buying a house. Looking at all the transport options online, we settled on the area around Colindale. The Northern Line tube would work well for both of us, and house prices were just on the side of affordable.
When I thought about it the next day, I realised things were getting serious.
Things moved fast after Christmas. During the celebrations, we told both sets of parents of our intention to buy a small house in Colindale, and get married next year, probably in May. Becky’s mum doubted we could book anywhere with such short notice, but she hadn’t reckoned with the fact that Becky had already placed a provisional booking at a hotel in Hertford, and also reserved a reception suite and some rooms at the same place. My mum went on about who should be invited, and even my dad seemed sold on the idea. He did moan a bit about the distance from Gidea Park to Colindale, so I joked about him not being asked to come over anyway.
Nodody was surprised, and they all seemed happy about it.
Becky was still adding things to her blog, so naturally wrote something about the forthcoming wedding, and the fact that the offer we had made on the Colindale house had been accepted. Working for the bank, I could get a reduced-rate mortgage as a staff perk, with no fear of having it declined. When she was at work one night, I sat in my house and read her blog on my phone. I didn’t normally bother, but I wanted to know what she had written about the wedding, and her plans, see if it was any different to what we had discussed.
I was really shocked to discover it was all incredibly romantic and touching. She referred to me as ‘my wonderful boyfriend’ on the one about Barcelona, and on the wedding plans page she had added a good photo of me and called me ‘The gorgeous man who will become my husband, the love of my life’. I was rather taken aback. We didn’t go in for a lot of that kind of talk. She had even once said to me, “I don’t do lovey-dovey chat, so you will just have to take it as read”. On her blog, she was writing like someone besotted with me, as if I could do no wrong. I was definitely pleased, if a little confused. There were other blog pages too. On one about the trip to the Zoo, followed by Tapas, she had noted, “I knew as I watched him drive away that he was the one I wanted to be with always”. She had even had a little go at herself on a page about staying at my house. “He even forgives me for being untidy, and messing up his smart little house. How brilliant is that?”
I read all of it that night, and learned something completely new about someone I thought I knew well.
After that, it all seemed to happen very quickly, and I had little to do with any of it. The two-bed semi in Colindale went through smoothly, and my place sold at the asking price on just one Saturday afternoon. It all seemed too good to be true. And it was.
The arguments had started about wedding guests, with both lots of parents getting involved. Becky had said a maximum of sixty, including Fliss and Jackie, and one of her best friends who was going to be the only bridesmaid. Her name was Fiona, and she was a nurse too, except she lived in Scotland now, and worked at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. So I had never met her, which wasn’t a problem. Luke was to be my best man, as long as he wore shoes and a suit. Other than that, I didn’t care who came, but our parents did.
The deal was that Becky’s parents would put in her share of the deposit on the house. I was using the capital from selling the Beckton place as well as some savings, and they were matching that so we went in equally. My parents said they would pay for the wedding instead of giving us money, and it had been agreed. Unfortunately, my mum took that to mean that she could invite whoever she wanted, including some distant relatives I couldn’t even remember meeting. During a very fractious Sunday afternoon in Gidea Park, tempers flared when mum suggested that my parents were actually spending a great deal more than Becky’s so should be allowed to invite whoever they liked. Becky retaliated by saying she was prepared to scrap the whole wedding plan and just get married in a Registry Office with two witnesses.
On the silent drive home, I developed a pounding headache that I still had the next morning when I woke up.
Another thing I soon learned was that big dramas like the argument over the wedding guests can soon be forgotten by those involved. By the end of the week, both sets of parents had spoken on the phone, and each in turn to Becky. Unsurprisingly, I was left out of it except for being told of the outcome. Each family was to be allowed twenty-five guests, and there would be no extras coming just for the evening. Anyone invited would be there for the whole thing.
We had to move into the Colindale house before the wedding. For the time being, we used all the things from my place rather than buy anything new. My dad hired a big van, and we did the removal ourselves, cramming everything in so it took just one trip, with Becky following in my car filled with most of our clothes. That first night in our own place was a good feeling. My dad stayed around for fish and chips that Becky drove to get, and she thanked him warmly for all his help before he left. The new house seemed to suit us well, and having familiar things around definitely helped. We got most of it sorted on the Sunday, and went out to Pizza Hut to eat that night. As we both had to be at work the next day, we flopped into bed worn out before eleven.
Surprisingly, the new commute and returning to the house in the unfamiliar area didn’t take too long to start to feel very normal. We let the small garden go for now, and kept the car in the garage, out of the elements. The wedding date seemed to be approaching fast, and I was increasingly pleased that I had little or no say in any of the arrangements. We did have a conversation about names though. Becky’s nursing qualifications were in the name of Maclaren, and she asked if I would mind her not changing her surname to mine when we married. I hadn’t given that any thought, so just agreed.
My parents were less than happy when they found out though.
The actual day of the wedding was something of a blur, and it was only later that details popped into my head. Luke had done very well, which shocked us all. Not only did he wear a suit and real shoes, he gave an amazingly witty and affectionate speech which received cheers and applause. After some annoying Scottish music was played at the start of the disco, the DJ then got into the usual stuff guaranteed to fill the small dance floor, and a good time was had by all. The only weird thing about the whole day was Fiona. She arrived on the Thursday, and stayed with Becky’s parents. Then she turned up with them and Becky that morning, and hardly looked at me or spoke to me all day. The next morning she was off back to Scotland in her car, not even swinging by the hotel to say goodbye.
Athough I was desperate to ask what all that was about, I decided not to.
On the drive back to Colindale, the wedding ring felt strange on my finger. Becky couldn’t seem to stop grinning, and it was obvious that she was very happy to be married. We had agreed to skip a honeymoon, and go on holiday later that year instead. We wanted to go somewhere hot, and had settled on ten days near Bodrum in Turkey, in September. It was easy to get time off once the schools went back , and it was booked and paid for, with flights from Gatwick included.
At work the next day most of the team congratulated me, and Stella handed over a card with a voucher for John Lewis inside it. Considering none of them had been invited, a hundred quid was quite generous I thought. Then that was it. It was all over. We were a married couple, with a mortgage and a house. Two people who had already decided we didn’t want any children, and one person dead set on making a good career out of her job. On the Saturday morning, we got up early to go to the garden centre to buy some tubs and a bench.
I was feeling very grown up as we loaded the car.
Being married was a lot more than just sleeping in the same bed, and spending more time with just one person. Especially when you were married to someone who worked shifts, and you worked nine-to five on weekdays. It wasn’t long before I got some idea what that was like.
Arriving home one Wednesday, I was surprised to find Fliss and Jackie there with Becky. She hadn’t mentioned they were coming, and the three of them were already quite tipsy even though it wasn’t much after six. Dinner turned out to be an assortment of cheeses, followed by chocolates and ice cream, all washed down with copious amounts of red and white wine. Conversation was all about the hospital, and was quite raucous too.
I went to bed after midnight, facing a full day at work, and I could still hear them chatting until three in the morning. It wasn’t worth a huge argument, but when I got back worn out that night to find them still there, I wasn’t amused. They all had the same three days off, and had decided to make the most of them together. Becky dragged me out with them to a Mexican place in Hendon, and I sat nibbling my chimichangas as they prattled on about who they didn’t like at work, and who they did, before deciding to neck a shitload of Tequila. Another day tired at work.
Fortunately, that sort of thing didn’t happen too often, though the additional downside was that Becky then had to work nights all weekend, leaving me feeling at a loose end.
The money was running out too. Bit by bit, my old stuff had been replaced, with Becky and her mum deciding it was all too ‘masculine’. I came home one day to find all new stuff in the kitchen. Fridge-freezer, washing machine, and dishwasher, all in a steel-grey colour. Becky said it was more modern. I though it looked industrial, like a company canteen, or a restaurant kitchen. But she hadn’t spoken about it, and hadn’t told me she had bought it.
Ultimately, it was her money. We didn’t have a joint account, and both paid half of the bills by direct debit. Shopping for groceries was paid for weekly, taking turns, and the only joint money was in a savings account that hadn’t been touched since the wedding. The truth was, I didn’t really care if the toaster matched the microwave, and that matched the washing machine.
But it would have been nice to have been asked.
Our first annversary came and went. Becky had to work, so we agreed not to bother to celebrate. A few cards arrived, and there were phone calls from some friends, and both sets of parents. The weekend after, we bought a table and chairs for the garden, and some more plants for the borders. Although the garden wasn’t that big, we had finally turned it into a nice place to sit and relax. Except that rarely happened, between the days when it was cold and wet, or Becky was at work. Then that summer, I had a new lesson to learn, one about jealousy in a marriage.
Some guy at the bank was having a barbecue at his house, to celebrate his fortieth. I was surprised when he invited us, so accepted without thinking. When I told Becky the date, she said she was working that weekend, but that I should go. She even suggested that I get a taxi both ways so I could have a drink, even though that would cost me close to eighty quid, plus tip. I told her I wasn’t bothered to go alone, but she kept on about it until I decided to go.
To tell the truth, I had a good time. Far too many beers, a good laugh about some characters at the bank, and a lively crowd of friends and neighbours who I had never met, but enjoyed the company of. Full-on drunk at the end, I eventually cancelled the return taxi and stayed until the last knockings, accepting the bloke’s offer to crash on his sofa.
The next day I crept in sheepishly, fully expecting a barrage of questions once Becky woke up. But she didn’t say anything, and seemed really pleased to see me. She said she guessed I had drunk too much, and stayed over, and was just really glad that I had got out and enjoyed myself when she had to work. Instead of being happy about that, I was strangely disappointed.
I realised I had wanted her to be jealous.
Jealousy worked both ways, as I found out later that year. It turned out that Fiona was getting married the following summer. As the wedding was to be held in St Lucia on a beach, no friends had been invited, mainly to spare them the high cost of travel. So there was to be an extended hen weekend before, and that fell on our second anniversary. Becky busted a gut to get the time off, and it didn’t concern her that our second anniversary would pass without celebration, just as the first had. I found the thought of eight women on a free-for-all in Ibiza to be quite worrying, and had my doubts about why they needed to go for seven nights.
Like most things in our marriage, it was arranged and paid for long before it was mentioned to me. This time, I did make it clear that I wasn’t happy, and when Becky suggested I do something with Luke while she was away, I thought she wasn’t getting my point. We had to agree to disagree, and she accused me of sulking, which made me angry. Mainly because she was right, I was sulking. Not only because of her going on a monumental piss-up with a gang of girls I hardly knew, but also because she had decided that it would be her main holiday that year, and we didn’t need to go anywhere together. It also made me conscious that I had few friends, and no inclination to go on holiday with my best one, Luke.
So off she went, leaving me sitting at home or at work convinced she would be the centre of attraction for any randy guys over there, and might well end up copping off with one or more of them during a week of binge drinking. I didn’t even get to see her off at the airport, as she was going with two of the others in a taxi that had been booked. The first night, she sent a text to tell me that she had arrived okay, and then I didn’t hear anything for two days after that. I was reminded of Justina, though at least I knew Becky didn’t have two kids lurking anywhere.
And I also realised just how quickly I had become used to being a couple.
It passed soon enough, and I went to collect her from the return flight. She looked tired, and told me that two of the girls in her room had been laid low with Diarrhoea, and had not been able to go out after the first night. Fiona and her had an argument about something on night three, and the last two days it had rained heavily, trapping them all inside during the day. The hotel had been a shabby place, and so far from the bars and clubs they had to get taxis everywhere. I felt a little guilty that her news made me happy.
But not too guilty.
We had a quiet Sunday before she went back to work on Monday night. Becky cooked a roast dinner with a huge chicken, and we sat chatting after, finishing a bottle of wine. That felt like the marriage I had expected. A couple together, talking about anything, and relaxing after a nice meal. I wasn’t stupid, and knew there was more to making a marriage work than that, but I couldn’t help but be very happy that evening. As the mood was so good, I brought up the fact she had argued with Fiona, and mentioned how strange that woman had acted around me at the wedding. I added that she seemed to have been an unlikely choice as bridesmaid, and I was also surprised that Becky had not been invited to return the favour in St Lucia next year.
Then she told me something that really surprised me.
Fiona had been the best friend that had slept with her first long-term boyfriend on that New Year’s Eve. She was the reason they had split up, and it had been all the more painful because Fiona had been her closest friend until that happened. That was why she had gone back to Scotland to work in Edinburgh, after Becky told her she would never forgive her. Of course, that confused me. Then why invite her to our wedding, and to be the only bridesmaid? Becky told me that she had wanted to build bridges, and make a fresh start with her old friend. And she had concluded that the reason Fiona had been so weird around me was so that she couldn’t be accused of flirting with me, or even so much as having an opinion either way about me.
After they had all had too much to drink one night in Ibiza, Becky had dragged it all up again, and caused a huge upset with the hen party. I suggested that it might blow over, and that they could try again to rekindle that good friendship, but Becky was shaking her head as I spoke.
“No, I’m done with her. Should have known better than to try”.
As we got into our third year of marriage, some things were becoming easier.
I had got to grips with the fact that Becky had friends separate from our relationship, and learned to deal with the odd night out or celebration that didn’t include me just because we were married. But the parents were always a problem, on both sides. Working shifts, her weekends off were rare, so treasured. It was her natural inclination to want to see her parents, and mine to visit mine. When her brother was over on business, I got to meet him again at a Sunday lunch. But with such a family reunion, I was very much the outsider as they chatted about things in the past, without the slightest effort to include me.
The next time she had a Sunday off, I wanted us to go to my mum and dad for lunch, but she said she was tired and just wanted to chill out. So I went on my own, and had an awkward couple of hours fending off my mum’s questions about why Becky hadn’t bothered to show up.
Transport also became an issue. My old car was beginning to need money spent on it, and we talked about replacing it. Becky was all for buying a brand new car, as that would be more reliable. I could see her point, but I was reluctant to use such a big chunk of our savings to buy one.
Then on her days off during that week, she went and bought a Fiat 500, ex-demonstrator model. When I got home, I saw it parked there, and wondered who was visiting. When she told me she had bought it on low-rate forty-eight month finance, I was flabbergasted. Yes, I understood that she earned enough to pay the monthly cost, but yet again she hadn’t spoken to me about something that was a big financial commitment. I was then stuck with having to try to sell my old car for next to nothing through an online ad, and let it go to the first guy who made me an offer for cash.
I wasn’t happy, and even less so when she began to refer to the Fiat as “My car”, and we could just about get our weekly shop into the tiny vehicle. I also felt more than a little silly running around in that mint-green car that felt about as solid as a roller skate with a cover. Luke had just bought what he described as a ‘vintage classic’, a Nissan Skyline 240K GT. It had huge performance and a mean exterior, and he couldn’t stop laughing at me having to drive the Fiat. Though I made all the right noises about him having no need for an over-powered gas guzzler, I couldn’t even convince myself.
It didn’t take long for me to calm down. We hardly used a car, and the little Fiat was actually ideal for the crowded roads where we lived, and the traffic-heavy journey to visit either set of parents. I had to admit, albeit releuctantly, that Becky had made the right choice. So I had a chat with her, and we agreed to pay off the finance using some of the savings, freeing up the couple of hundred a month she would have been paying out for four years.
Becky being Becky, she saw that as a green light to book an autumn holiday and came home one day excited about the fact she had booked a week away to Cyprus, in late September. She hadn’t even asked if I could get that time off work, just presumed. She didn’t think much of my job, and made that obvious. Even though it meant we got cheaper mortgage payments, she didn’t consider it to be a worthwhile career, not like being an Emergency Department nurse, anyway. I had to go in the next day and act all creepy to get the week off, eventually helped by one of my colleagues cancelling the same week she didn’t really need.
But it was irritating, never to be asked. I decided we were going to have to talk about that.
Annoyingly, it was a great holiday. The weather was perfect, we got on really well, and the hotel and choice of area was the best on the island.
Once again I found myself eating my words, and didn’t bother having that talk.
If you let it, married life becomes a habit. And for a couple more years, we were guilty of doing just that. Becky applied for promotion to Ward Sister in the Emergency Department, and got the job. That meant she was in charge on her shifts and had a lot more responsibility, including more paperwork and supervision. She got a bit puffed up by that, and started to use expressions like “My team”, and “In my department last night”. Meanwhile, we drifted through our marriage, making appointments to do things together based on whether or not she was working. I still spent a fair bit of time on my own in the house, and often when she was at home, she would be sleeping after a night shift.
Becky had the idea to write her forthcoming shifts down in a big diary, which she left on the coffee table for me to check. But I soon learned not to trust that, as she frequently changed those shifts because someone had gone sick, or worked extra shifts when people were on holiday. I got used to eating alone some of the time, and her going to bed earlier than me after a long day shift. She did throw herself into her days off though. Doing her share of the housework, getting the supermarket shop when she was at home midweek, and even tidying up the garden that we never spent any time in.
Before I knew it, our sixth anniversary was approaching, and sure enough she was going to be on night duty on that date.
I spent the evening alone reading her blog. She still wrote it, mostly in fits and starts, but I hadn’t read it for a very long time. She had written a post about it being our anniversary, and how she was upset that she couldn’t be with me to celebrate it. There was a wedding photo, and a lot of very gushy stuff about what a great husband I was, and how blissfully happy she was. Scrolling back over most of the posts I had missed, I hardly recognised the Becky and Frankie she was writing about. There were photos from the holiday to Bodrum, and the later one to Cyprus. Also our holiday when we stayed in England, and drove around the Lake District. It had rained all the time, and she had complained non-stop.
But on her blog, it was described as ‘magical’, ‘romantic’, and ‘just perfect’.
There was everyday stuff too. Photos of the garden, captioned ‘Our little garden, the place we love’. Most times we had been to a restaurant were featured, and they were never negative. Captions like, ‘Great food in the company of my perfect man’ had me shaking my head as I remembered her arguing with the waitress about how long it had taken for the food to arrive. Then we argued because I remarked that we were not really in any rush. A couple of hours reading through her blog had me convinced that what she was writing about was for the benefit of any friends and family reading it, and was only a half-truth about the life we really led.
The next Sunday, we stayed at home as she slept off her last night shift. Then she got up and had a shower, coming down wrapped in a towel with her hair still wet. I had made up my mind to have a talk with her, and this time I did.
In a reasonable tone of voice, it all came out. Why the blog didn’t seem real, the fact that she booked things and bought things without ever checking with me first. How her job was the only thing she ever talked about, and how I felt that sometimes I was just along for the ride. While I was at it, I threw in my annoyance at her and her family claiming all those Scottish connections, when they were all from the London suburbs, clinging to a heritage that was essentially non-existent, other than a surname. To give her credit, she sat and listened to all of it without interruption, and I was completly surprised by her reaction.
She cried a bit, then apologised. She told me I was right, and she felt guilty about excluding me. But she maintained everything she wrote on her blog was exactly as she felt inside, and was how she felt about me all the time, every day. We had a cuddle, and she vowed to make more effort, even apologising for not realising how she had upset me. I felt pretty good after that, like we were finally communicating properly. Then she was going upstairs to sort her hair out, and turned before walking through the door.
“Frankie, I am Scottish you know”.
After our talk, there was a long period where things worked a lot better. Becky’s blog was less like a fairytale, we arranged our time together to do more, instead of her preferred activity of ‘chilling out’. The parents were put on a rotation, and we stuck to the arrangements fairly. Although she never brought it up, I knew my mum had expected us to change our minds about having children, and she was disappointed when we didn’t. Becky’s dad often asked why I hadn’t sought promotion at the bank, and my answer that the biggest jobs were usually the first to get the chop didn’t seem to satisfy him.
I now had what we called a ‘Luke Night’ during one of the shifts when Becky worked nights. I would go to his place after work, take a change of clothes for the stopover, and we would have beers and a takeaway while I watched him play on one of his latest video games. Becky had thought it would be good for me, but it just made me realise all the more that Luke and I were growing apart. In turn, she would have an ‘Old Place Night’ when she was off during a weekday. She would stay the night with Fliss and Jackie, and their new flatmate Antonia, who was a medical secretary. Apparently, they all got their pyjamas on early, and binge-watched reality TV. The one positive about that was that it made her realise just what a mess the old flat was in, and encouraged her to help keep our house really tidy.
It was hard to shake the feeling that we were getting boring though. Our life together was safe, and well-organised. But to say it lacked excitement was an understatement.
Early that summer, I bought a small kettle barbecue, and suggested we make some more use of the garden. Becky came home from a shop with lights on a string, and we fixed them around the fencing. After some fiddling, I got them working, and we sat outside eating burgers, and drinking wine. I had thought of inviting the immediate neighbours, but the lady didn’t speak English, and her husband, who had only told me his name was Ali, was a taxi driver, and always at work. As for the rest along the street, we hardly knew them. That’s London for you. I also suggested that we invite Jackie and Fliss, even Luke. But as usual, shifts ruined any plans, and they couldn’t all make it on the same day.
When it had cooled down, I put the vinyl cover over the barbecue, and we never used it again.
Our holiday had also been discussed in advance for a change. We rented a place in Brittany, and drove over in our car, taking the ferry from Portsmouth. The car managed the journey well, and it was a really good holiday. The small apartment was part of a large house, and close to Quimper. We got out and about every day, and had exceptionally good weather. Away from both of our jobs, free of the bank targets and her shifts, we got on really well. On the way to the port to go home, chatting happily about how good it had been, Becky said something that hit a nerve.
“Yeah, I agree, it was really nice, Frankie. But it wouldn’t hurt to be more spontaneous at times you know. You do get stuck in your plans and routines, and I can’t remember the last time we just did something without making a big case about it”. I was concentrating on driving on the wrong side of the road, so let it go. But it didn’t escape my notice that it was her shifts that were the cause of all that planning, and the lack of me doing anything spontaneous. As well as the days and nights on her rota, there were the others that cropped up, alongside training courses and management meetings on her days off. I was reluctant to even book cinema tickets, without being completely sure she would be off duty.
After driving onto the ship, we made our way upstairs for some lunch. Sitting smiling at each other over deliciously fresh baguettes, I made up my mind.
If she wanted spontaneous, then that’s what I would be.
Not long after we got back from the holiday to France, I did three spontaneous things in quick succession. It wasn’t long before Becky had changed her word for it though. She preferred ‘Impulsive’. Not quite ‘Reckless’, but indicating that she thought the sudden change in my attitude was less than desirable. She had conveniently forgotten that it had been her suggestion in the first place of course.
And there was a fourth thing too, but I didn’t tell her about that.
My first decision was to change jobs. I heard about a new online bank opening. No branches, no chequebooks, just online with a call-centre backup. They were looking for department managers, and I applied to be head of the mortgage section. I got an interview, where I impressed with apparently knowing the demographic of the customers they were hoping to grab from the traditional banks.That generation who were ‘coming up’. Young professionals who couldn’t be bothered to queue in a branch, had never signed a cheque, and lived their lives online. I predicted an easy and secure phone app, text message contact, and a big push to offer students good banking facilities to keep them as customers once they were earning well.
That got me a second interview which involved some annoying role play, and an assessment of my understanding of social media and computer skills. The next day, I got a phone call offering me the job, with a start date at the end of the following month. The headquarters was in a trendy brownfield site in North London, still accessible from the Northern Line train. But the big draw was the salary, almost twice what I was getting, and no targets as the manager. I would have to inspire my team to reach theirs of course, which was one of the main roles of the new job. I would still get the staff mortgage benefit, as it would just be transferred across for the usual small fee and paperwork.
I hadn’t told Becky, as I didn’t want her to know if I didn’t get it. But I would have to get her to sign the paperwork eventually, so suggested a meal out at a nice Indian restaurant, where I broke the news. She tried to look pleased for me at first, but then slipped into doubts about my previous pension, whether or not the new bank would stay in business, and loads of other negatives that were a complete downer. I suspected that her main gripe was that I would now be earning so much more than her. She had always liked to mention that she earned more than me, even though the difference was only two hundred a year.
When I said that the extra money would mean we could do a lot of nice things, she just nodded.
Then I changed the car one Saturday, when she was at work. I knew she wouldn’t be happy about that, but it was exactly what she had done, and it was certainly spontaneous. I didn’t go crazy, just bought a nice Honda hatchback with a slightly bigger engine. It was one year old, low mileage, and the difference in the part exchange price was easily paid out of my own savings account. She didn’t complain that much, especially after she had driven it around the block a few times on the Sunday morning. But I knew there had to be something.
She didn’t like the colour.
Once I had settled into the new job, I planned my third surprise. Her birthday was coming up, and I asked a lot of questions about whether or not she definitely had the day off. She said she did, as her parents were planning a dinner for her at their house. I had already taken the time off, telling my new bosses as soon as I started. I rang her mum and dad, explained what I was thinking of doing, and swore them to secrecy. The night before her birthday, I told Becky we might be doing something special, and that she would have to get up early, and wear something nice. She still insisted on phoning her mum to make sure she knew we wouldn’t be going there, but I had her intrigued.
On the morning, I drove us down to a private airfield, where we had our own helicopter flight across the Channel to France. A taxi from the airfield there took us into the centre of Paris. Lunch was booked at one of the latest trendy restaurants in Montmartre, and we had time for some sightseeing before. She was definitely impressed, as well as being completely gobsmacked. When we finished eating, I presented her with a gold bracelet made from links in the shape of hearts, and a waitress brought out a little cupcake with a candle alight on it.
It was all pretty much perfect, even if I say so myself. On the late afternoon flight back to England, she held my hand tightly, and told me she loved me.
But in the car on the way back to the house, she finally cracked, and asked me how much it had all cost. There was no way I was going to reveal the astronomical price of that one day, so told her that was my secret. Her response was to stare out of the window and mutter, “But it’s so extravagant, Frankie”.
Oh, that fourth thing. I started my own blog, which is how you are reading this. That’s if anyone is reading it of course. I didn’t allow those likes or comments, and have never actually checked if anyone has read so much as a word.
And like I said, I didn’t tell Becky about it either.
For the next couple of years, life was pretty good. By a twist of fate, my old bank bought out the new one I was working for, so I amalgamated my pensions and carried on as manager of mortgages. I even did a local TV interview about the way our brand was appealing to the younger home buyers, and got myself on the front page of the company magazine as a result. All the extra money coming in meant more treats too, but I eased up on the spontaneity. We talked about moving to a bigger house, and went so far as to go and view some a bit further out. But we ended up agreeing we didn’t need anything bigger, and it would just be more to clean and maintain.
I still checked on Becky’s blog during that time, smiling when she raved about our Paris day trip, and how much she loved the bracelet I bought her. She even posted something about what a good idea it had been to change the car, and how much she preferred having four doors to two. The photo on that page was a selfie of her sitting in the driver’s seat. Although she mentioned me on almost every blog post, she never wrote about my job, or my promotion. Her dad seemed to be the only one interested, and when he talked to me about it, she usually tried to change the subject.
Then just before last Christmas, I was shocked to get a early morning phone call from my mum to tell me my dad had died. He wasn’t that old, and had never been ill. She just woke up and found him dead next to her. Becky was at work, so I sent her a text, and another to my work, then drove straight over to see my mum, hardly able to believe what was happening. She had called an ambulance, but they had pronounced him dead, then informed the police who had advised the local coroner. There was going to have to be a post-mortem, and by the time I arrived after struggling with the solid rush hour traffic, the undertaker appointed to remove him had already left with his body.
It was all rather surreal. Neither of us were crying. Mum kept making tea until I thought my bladder would burst, then she asked me to ring around a few friends and relatives. She had already called in to his job and told them. He had been due to retire in two years when he hit sixty, and mum sat and told me about the plans they had discussed about moving to the coast, and doing some travelling by buying a campervan. It sounded as if she was talking about some other people though, not about her and dad. She was detached, drinking cup after cup of tea, and leaving me to answer the calls from anyone who phoned.
Becky had rung me as soon as she finished her shift and saw the message. She was the only one crying. I told her to go home and get some sleep, as there was nothing she could do, so no point in coming over. Mum had told me not to bother to stop over, adamant she would be okay. So I stayed with her for the evening, refusing her offer of making me a huge dinner. We settled for toasted cheese sandwiches, eaten in silence. Both of us had talked enough for one day. Christmas was going to be grim.
Dad’s death was caused by a brain bleed, described as ‘catastrophic’. I took some time off to help mum sort out dad’s things and the funeral, which was a simple cremation held early in January. Freezing cold, and light snow on the ground, followed by light snacks and a few drinks in a reserved room in a Romford pub. Mum wanted to be on her own after, so Becky drove me back to Colindale, constantly asking if I was okay. I think my dad’s death had brought home the mortality of her parents, who were both a few years older than mine.
That was a shitty start to the year. A year that was only going to get worse.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
A few days after my dad’s funeral, Becky mentioned the Burns Night celebration. She was going to the social club with her family, the one where we had our first date. They had that big Scottish party every year, but as she had almost always been working, she hadn’t gone to one since we got married. I had forgotten it, what with my dad dying, and my mum acting all withdrawn and quiet. I told her I wouldn’t be going. The last thing I needed was to spend the night eating haggis while a lot of pretend Scots danced around to Highland music.
Becky sulked a bit, then suggested it might cheer me up to go. But I stuck to my refusal, and didn’t think it was a big deal. She could stop over at her parents’ place, or get a taxi home. I certainly didn’t have any objection to her going.
But for some reason, she assumed I did.
I was woken up at almost two in the morning by the doorbell ringing. I wondered what was going on, sure Becky would have stayed with her parents, so didn’t think it would be her. It was a grumpy looking cab driver. “You will have to come and get this woman out of my cab mate. I can’t shift her, and she hasn’t paid the fare either”. Wearing only my boxers, I walked across to the car and saw her flat out on the back seat. Her tartan dress had ridden up over her hips, and she was mumbling incoherently. I dragged her out, and she collapsed onto her knees on the driveway. I had to bend down and get her over my shoulder, telling the driver I would be back with his money. I took her straight upstairs, and dropped her onto the bed.
The generous tip pleased the cabbie, and I was relieved that Becky hadn’t been sick in his car. He shook his head and smiled. “She seemed okay when she got in, gave me the address fine, and chatted about all sorts of stuff. Then halfway here, she just passed out. I was glad when you answered the door mate, I can tell you”.
Getting her undressed was a struggle, but I eventually got her into bed. I brought a glass of water from the kitchen, and a bucket too, in case she was sick. It took me ages to get back to sleep, and when I woke up the next morning she was still flat out, in the same position. The smell of whisky coming off her was overwhelming. I knew she rarely drank that, so that might explain why she had been so bad. I was glad that the party had been on a Saturday, and not on the actual Burns Night itself, as I would have had to have skipped work that day otherwise. But Becky was due in that night, and showed little sign of rousing.
I left her until just after one, then went up to wake her. She was in a foul mood, terribly hung over, and snapping at whatever I said. She refused to get out of bed, and later that day she rang in sick for her shift, the first time she had ever done that without being ill. I tried talking to her in the bedroom, but she just kept turning over. So I went down and watched a film, sticking a pizza in the oven at six when I got hungry. The day had been a complete write off, and the evening wasn’t looking too good either.
She finally came downstairs at close to nine. Wrapped in a blanket, and with a scowl on her face. I was watching the news, and she suddenly reached for the remote, and switched off the TV.
“Frankie, I was so annoyed that you didn’t come last night. Everyone was asking why you weren’t there, it was really embarrassing. I had to make out you were too upset about your dad to come out. Christ, that’s the first time I went to one of those since I met you, and you couldn’t even be bothered to come. That’s why I got so drunk you know, it was your bloody fault”. I let her ramble on a bit more, until she had exhausted her moans. I knew full well that she was feeling guilty about the state she had been in, and blaming me made it easier for her to deal with. But my refusal to engage in the argument made her even angrier.
She went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea, then went straight back up to bed with it. I debated whether or not to go up there and get the argument over and done with, and decided I didn’t need the aggravation with work in the morning.
That night, I slept on the sofa.
Some arguments are hard to get past in a marriage, and the drunken Burns Night was one that dragged on. For a few weeks, the atmosphere was frosty. I didn’t bother to go and see Luke, but Becky stopped over with Fliss and Jackie for the whole three nights of her days off. There was no holiday planned, so I tried to sit down with Becky and talk about one. With all the extra money coming in, we could have afforded to go anywhere, but she just shrugged. “Anywhere you want, I’m not that bothered”. I realised we needed to work on what was going wrong, but she wouldn’t be drawn into conversation about it, and just left the room if I pushed it.
Staying over with my mum when Becky was on nights, I tried to talk to her about it. She was of the opinion that we should have had children, and that was what was wrong with Becky. But mum’s main concern was with moving away to a bungalow on the coast somewhere. She was even thinking about buying one of those log cabin style Park Homes, and had a brochure for a site in Lincolnshire, near Cleethorpes. I dreaded the idea of her moving away that far, imagining the awful traffic when I had to drive all that way to visit her.
Then Becky started to act normal again, out of the blue. She mentioned we had been invited to her mum and dad’s place for a Saturday dinner, and it had been arranged for the end of the month. When we got there that night, her parents had pulled out all the stops. Four courses of great food. lots of wine and liquers, and the offer of stopping over so we could both have a drink. Her dad was praising me up for my new job, and even Becky chimed in, with “He has done so well”. During after dinner conversation, I chatted with her dad about cars, and he suggested we get something better than the Honda. “After all, Frankie, you are doing well, and can afford it”. Becky overheard, and shot us a huge smile. “That’s a great idea. We could get something new, and have a driving holiday in Scotland”. I almost laughed out loud at her bringing up Scotland, but nodded as I sipped at a large Port instead.
After perusing the car market for a few days, we agreed on something extravagant. Trading in the Honda and adding a hefty deposit from savings, we bought a new car, with three-year finance on the balance. An Audi Q5 in pearlescent white, that looked pretty amazing parked on the driveway. Even Luke approved, though he jokngly referred to it as a ‘Tart’s Wagon’ just to wind me up. Becky had bought guidebooks and maps online, and was busily planning the trip. She had decided we should take almost three weeks, starting in Edinburgh, up to Inverness, and back down along the west coast. She was really into it, booking hotel rooms or bed and breakfast places, with the itinerary looking very tight. I asked her if we were visiting wherever it was her family came from. It was a test really, though also a bit of wickedness on my part. But she missed the implication.
“Well, dad mentioned Ayr, but we haven’t got any addresses there now. It was too long ago. Still, we could go there, it’s on the coast”.
She said it with such sincerity, she almost managed to convince me.
Sadly, it was a disastrous holiday, mainly because of the weather. The new car was fabulous, and the four-wheel drive helped, but that early summer in Scotland was one of the worst in decades, and wherever we went, it never seemed to stop raining. I remember spending most of that trip completely covered in a knee-length parka, with the hood up. Becky was determined to see everything she had planned, even if much of it was in either mist or cloud. I checked her blog one night when she was in the shower, and it was full of photos of wet places in Scotland, with captions like ‘Amazing’, ‘Soulful’, and ‘So historic’.
But on the long drive home, she moaned constantly about the weather, bitterly regretting we had not chosen somewhere warm and sunny.
That gave me an idea.
Is anyone reading this, I wonder? If they are, then maybe they might remember the blog post where I wrote about Becky going crazy when I sprung a surprise holiday on her that autumn. I thought she would love it. Five days in Dubai, including a balloon ride, and a trip into the desert to ride camels. Guaranteed hot weather plus lots of shops for her to check out, and only five nights away, so easy to ask for time off. She covered other shifts at the hospital all the time, so it would be the least they could do to get hers covered. I wasn’t about to even hint, as I liked the idea of surprising her with some sun and fun, after the wet and miserable holiday in Scotland.
And I wanted to be spontaneous.
But of course, I had to tell her eventually, as she had to ask for the time off. I was so excited when I laid it all out for her, and that disappeared as soon as I saw her face. She wasn’t going to ask for time off at short notice, and didn’t want to owe a favour to one of her colleagues. I should have asked her, and now I wouldn’t get a refund, and would lose the money too. She called me ‘stupid’, ‘thoughtless’, even ‘inconsiderate’, then berated me for ‘wasting money’.
That turned into the mother of all bust-ups, as we took turns telling each other home truths, like boxers coming out for the next round. Most of what was said had never really been fully explored before. I discovered that she felt I was smothering her, and not allowing her enough time to chill out, or visit friends. Then she spitefully suggested that I had made a ‘meal’ out of my dad’s death, and had gone on and on about my mum wanting to move to Lincolnshire. It was one of those arguments when voices were not really raised, and the words that came out sounded like they had been saved up for just such an occasion.
They are the worst kind of arguments, don’t you think?
I hit back with they way she had controlled everything at the start, from buying furniture, to changing the car on a whim. Next, I released all those years of pent up annoyance about the mysterious Scottish heritage, and that really sent her over the edge into floods of tears. That was when she told me to go, and said she was finished with me. I ended up in Luke’s flat, then came home to collect some of my things the next day.
The rough night at Luke’s had taken its toll, and as I sat on the bed thinking about how Becky and me had got to this, I stretched out, feeling exhausted. The next thing I knew, the sound of the front door closing woke me up. It had to be Becky of course, home from her shift. I had slept through most of the day, and hadn’t even packed any stuff to take to my mum’s. I felt strangely awkward in my own house, and didn’t know whether to wait to see if she came up, or go downstairs to face her. She knew I was there of course, as the car was outside, and I had taken it last night. The sound of her feet running up the stairs made me uneasy, with no idea what was going to happen.
What did happen was the last thing I expected.
She ran into the bedroom and flung her arms around me, gripping tight. Before I could apologise for being there, she launched into a monologue about how bad she felt, how sorry she was for the things she had said, how much she loved me, and really wanted us to work out our marriage. She finished with something that weirdly made sense. “That was such a terrible argument, and it has made me feel ill all day. But on the way home I realised that it’s all out of the way now. We can forget all that stuff, and work together to stop all those mistakes and lack of communication happening again. We can do it, Frankie, I know we can”.
And that is what happened. I was back, after one night away, and we both acted as if the argument hadn’t happened. Mum moved to Linclonshire in late November, and I spent Christmas with her as Becky was working. On New Year’s Eve, we went to a party at Becky’s parents, as her brother and his family were over. For those few months, we had never been happier, or more together. The morning after the party we went for a walk, declaring that 2020 was going to be a great year for both of us.
So here I am, writing this in February. Valentine’s Day last week was great, as Becky was off and we went out for a really romantic meal in Soho. I don’t often get the chance to write so much on my blog now, but I am off sick from work today, as I can’t seem to shake this really annoying cough.
I hope it’s not that virus thing they have been talking about on the news.