Actress and screenwriter Ruth Jones shows us the dangers of trying to recapture that which was once lost and failing to realise the beauty of what we already have
Actress and screenwriter Ruth Jones shows us the dangers of trying to recapture that which was once lost and failing to realise the beauty of what we already have
Fergus was getting tetchy. The new girl should’ve been there at six. And now it was twenty past. A Saturday night at the height of the summer season was not a time to be short-staffed. He’d already roped poor Callum in to help. And obviously he’d rather be elsewhere. He looked over at him serving behind the bar and thought, as he often did, how good he looked for his age, definitely younger than his thirty-eight years. Fergus’s kid brother, Callum. Funny he still thought of him as the baby. Even though he was a towering six foot four. He watched him now, chatting easily to a couple of the locals. That was the thing about Callum. He was easy. With absolutely everyone. Whoever he was talking to – no matter who they were, their background, their age – he had this way of sounding interested. It’s what made him such a good teacher. And such a good dad. Fergus envied his brother’s enduring patience.
Callum was listening to old Stuey Jameson berating the latest goings-on in the news, putting the world to rights – Ach, how things’d be if he ran the show. It was part of the job, listening to the regulars – the old boys who staked their territory at the bar and refused to move, no matter how busy it got in the pub. Always sitting in the same place, on the same bar stools, drinking the same brand of bitter. Even in winter, when the place was sunk into sad hibernation and waves from the North Sea smashed relentlessly against the sand, hurling their beige foam high over the roofs of the seafront hotels; when the promenade was no longer peopled with ice-cream-holding holidaymakers – even then, in those dark, tradeless months, regulars like Stuey religiously came and sat at the bar, downing their pints in perfectly timed rhythm, to the tune of sparse, empty chat. Yes, Stuey and his like were the pub’s bread and butter out of season, and could never be taken for granted.
Fergus nodded at Callum and headed out to the beer garden. Where the hell was this barmaid? He knew it was a mistake taking her on. The girl – Kate something-or-other – had come to him last week when he was particularly busy. The daughter of a mate of a mate, looking for a holiday job and apparently a bit lively, but weren’t they all these days? Fancied herself as a bit of an actress. But didn’t they all these days? Fergus reckoned actresses were probably good with people, good at chatting to the likes of Wheezy Ron and Jackie Legg. And she’d had this smile. And before he knew it, there he was saying, ‘OK, come in on Saturday at six, let’s see how it goes.’ And looking at his watch, it was now six thirty-five. So it wasn’t going well at all.
He started clearing crisp-packet debris from one of the tables. A group of kids who’d made the mess whooped and cheered as Fergus deftly collected five pint glasses in each practised hand. One of the crowd, enthusiastic with drink, drained his whisky chaser and brought the tumbler down too hard, smashing it to pieces and eliciting more cheers and whoops.
‘Hey! You can cut that out RIGHT now, d’ye hear!’
Fergus took the glasses back to the bar. ‘Have a word with that lot, will you, Cal? They’re doin’ my nut in and it’s only half six.’ He handed him a dustpan and brush. ‘And where the hell is this girl?’
Heading outside to the rowdy crowd, Callum wondered again why Fergus had ever wanted a pub. He hated the hours, hated the customers and didn’t even like a drink! He started clearing up the broken glass. ‘Take it easy now, lads. My brother’s in a strop tonight and it’s me that’ll get it in the neck.’
‘Aye. Cheers, Cal.’
Callum’s gentle-giant demeanour was always a calming force. Friends joked he should have worked for the UN. His quiet confidence and lovely-ugly-rugby-player soul made those around him feel safe. He never lost his temper and yet no one would ever want to get on the wrong side of him. His rugby days long gone, Callum’s body still bore the war wounds from years of playing on weather-beaten pitches, taking hit after hit in the scrum, battered by thousands of tackles, bashed, cut, bruised and scarred. He’d never been an oil painting in the traditional sense, but what made him so attractive was the fact that he didn’t know he was, his features now more rugged than the Scottish coastline he’d grown up on. And as Denise at the club often liked to say, no matter how old he got, Callum MacGregor would never lose his sexy-as-fuck factor.
‘Look boys – it’s magic!’ A voice came from behind them. An alien Welsh accent amidst the cacophony of Scottish. ‘Daddy’s got a pan and brush in his hands and he’s actually USING it!’
Callum beamed as he turned to see Belinda, his heavily pregnant, tenaciously blooming thirty-six-year-old wife, holding the hands of his two little sons, Ben and Cory. ‘Ey, watch it, you!’
‘Daddy, we’re goin’ the beach!’
Callum leant down and tickled Ben, making him squeal with delight. ‘Wish I was!’ He kissed Belinda softly on the cheek. ‘You OK?’
‘Oh y’know, so-so. Car’s out the front.’ She handed him the keys. ‘You sure you’re alright walking back?’
Belinda rubbed her tummy. ‘Yeah – the exercise’ll do me good. Might jog this one into getting a move on. Don’t reckon I can take another four weeks of this.’
‘Good curry – that’s what you need.’
‘No more kids! That’s what I need, Callum MacGregor. I’m never letting you near me ever again!’
Callum nuzzled discreetly into her neck, whispering, ‘And we all know that’s not gonna happen.’
Belinda caught her breath. He could still make her tingle even now, ten years down the road and on baby number three. ‘Behave,’ she whispered back, blushing. And scooping up Cory, who clutched his bucket and spade, she headed out, calling over her shoulder, ‘What time you back? Twelveish?’
‘Yeah, won’t be any later.’
He watched her go. Ten years older now than when they’d first met. Ten years wiser – if Belinda could actually be any wiser – and ten years more gorgeous, a child in each hand and another about to arrive. Yes, he looked at his wife and thought how very, very lucky he was.
If he could have replayed his life like a VHS tape, he’d have made it freeze-frame, put it on pause, and asked to pick up again from there. From that life-changing moment when he watched his beloved Belinda walk away and the whirlwind that was Kate Andrews come hurtling into his safe little world.
She was eating candy-floss.
She was twenty-two.
She was breathtakingly beautiful.
The lads round the table were delighted. ‘Oi! Give us a bite!’
‘Sorry – I never share anything. Don’t know what I might catch!’
She winked at them, then headed indoors, not even noticing Callum, who still stood, pan and brush in hand.
Inside, the bar was getting busier. ‘Sorry I’m late. I went to the fair!’ Kate looked around for a bin and threw away her candyfloss stick. The annoyance on Fergus’s face was masked by the steam that poured out of the glass-washer. He’d like to sack her before she’d even started, but he desperately needed a barmaid. He knew Kate knew this.
‘Right. I’m not impressed. And if you’re this late again, you can forget the job. Now get these glasses stacked and start serving. It’ll be eight deep in here in an hour.’
Callum went behind the bar and grabbed one of the many pint glasses being thrust his way from the other side.
‘The Seventy Shilling needs changing . . .’
‘I’ll do it,’ Callum offered.
‘No, you’re alright, just do me a pint for Alec, will you?’ And Fergus was off to the cellar.
‘OK, who’s next?’ Kate beamed at the sea of customers, seemingly unbothered by Fergus’s ticking-off. A chorus of thirsty voices each claiming their turn.
‘Is he always that miserable?’ she asked Callum as she began serving. It was the first time she’d spoken to him and all Callum could think about was the fact that her bare arm was touching his as they pulled their pints of lager in unison.
In defence of his brother, he tried to sound pissed off. ‘You were forty minutes late.’
‘Ha! You sound like a teacher!’ Kate laughed. ‘That’s because I am one.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Kate stopped, pint in hand.
‘No. This is just . . . well, I help Fergus out when it’s busy.’
She turned, noticing him for the first time. ‘Where d’you teach?’
‘St Mary’s down the road – top juniors.’
‘Ah, we used to play them in netball.’
‘Which school did you go to then?’
‘Other side of town. North Park on the Queensferry Road.’ Her smile was mesmerizing. ‘I’m Kate, by the way.’
She held his gaze.
Five hours later, she was astride him, her lacy knickers discarded on the sandy ground beneath their feet and her little denim skirt confidently pulled up. The wooden slats of the shelter’s bench groaned along with every thrust, joining in. She sat facing him, taking all of him in, relentlessly delighted to feel him inside her, as if discovering sex for the first time. But she was too well versed in what she was doing for this to be the first time. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath and held his face, disbelievingly – ‘Jesus!’ His smile spread slowly, then, without warning, he picked her up in one deft movement and pushed her against the wall. She whispered ‘Yes’ and he carried on fucking her. ‘God, you’re good.’
What are you doing? The question flashed through his mind but he swiftly ignored it.
They came together. Stood there indecorously, his jeans around his ankles, her legs around his waist and the North Sea pounding. Suddenly, over the yelling of the waves, they heard singing: a drunken voice, getting closer. ‘I’m ne’er ginna dance agin, Guilty feelin’ got nae rhythm.’
‘Shit!’ Kate giggled. Callum covered her mouth with his hand. Which turned her on even more.
She didn’t. Nor did Callum. She buried her head in his neck as the well-oiled George Michael tribute act turned the corner at the other end of the shelter, leant up against the wall, unleashed his tackle and had an almighty pish. It seemed to go on forever, accompanied by bursts of ‘Shoulda known better than to cheat a friend . . .’
Kate, still amused, started biting Callum’s palm. Every second that passed, they waited for the man to look up and see them, but he was oblivious. When he eventually finished, he shook himself down, tucked himself in and stumbled away.
Kate whispered, ‘D’you think he—’
‘Not a thing.’
But from a little way off came a shout. ‘G’nigh, pal. Nice arse, by the way.’ And Kate collapsed in giggles.
It was nearly one a.m. when he drove her into the city centre, tatty bits of Body Shop make-up messy in her lap. The vanity mirror was down and she was scooping her hair up into a scrunchy. She had big rich glossy brown curls, masses of them. He wanted to put his hands through them again, bury his face in them and inhale.
She saw him looking. ‘Oi, keep your eyes on the road.’
He smiled and did what he was told.
Shaking a blue mascara wand into action, she began topping up her lashes, mouth open in concentration.
‘How old are your kids?’
‘Who says I got kids?’
‘You gonna tell me you haven’t?’
He smiled. ‘Three and five. And there’s another one on the way.’
‘Christ, you been busy. No wonder you need the extra cash.’ She was onto lipliner now. Callum stole a glance as she meticulously lined her fleshy lips with confident expertise. She knew he was watching again. ‘I can do this with my eyes closed, y’know. It’s my party trick.’
‘Bet you couldn’t do someone else’s.’
She smiled. ‘Just here’s fine. I’ll walk the rest.’ And she swept up her make-up and shoved it into her little beaded bag as Callum stopped the car.
‘You sure you don’t want me to take you home?’
‘It’s a Saturday night in Edinburgh, man! Remember those? Nightclubs? Curry houses? Hangovers the next day? You’re not that old.’
‘Thirty-nine next month!’
She smirked at him and got out of the car. ‘Thanks for the lift!’
He watched as she walked away. And then, as if remembering something, she turned on her heel and came back to his side of the car. He wound down the window and she leant inside to kiss him.
Jesus, those lips, he thought.
She looked him straight in the eye. ‘You. Are going. To break my heart, Callum MacGregor.’ And she was off again, banging the roof of the car as she left. ‘Toodle-pip!’ This time she didn’t turn around.
He tried to take in what had just happened. Was it some kind of set-up, an elaborate joke played by one of the boys at the club? No. This was no joke.
And then it came.
He took a deep breath. Where would he say he’d been tonight? For the briefest of moments, he thought about telling her. What? Fuck, no. How could he even think that was a good idea?
Went up the club, had a bit of a lock-in.
Gary would cover for him. He owed him more than one favour on that front – Callum was always covering for Gary. Christ, is that what he’d become now? A rugby-club-shagger bore?
In the distance he saw Kate join a group of friends, laughing. One of them picked her up and swung her round. Callum turned the key in the ignition and his car pulled away. He was headed home. Ready to start lying.
‘I fell for him so hard. It was like riding a bicycle really fast down a very steep hill and realizing my brakes weren’t working.’ Kate Andrews – now thirty-nine, tearful, smartly dressed and more stunning with age – was talking to a therapist, hands crossed neatly in her lap.
‘And what about him? What d’you think he was feeling at the time?’ The therapist was softly spoken, kind.
Kate took a deep breath. ‘Well, to be honest, most of the time I think he was feeling . . .’ she hesitated and the therapist nodded, willing her to speak, ‘. . . my arse.’ And she burst out laughing, covering her face in her hands.
The director and the TV crew were used to this from Kate. The actor playing the therapist looked bemused. The camera guys shared a smile.
‘Sorry, I’m so sorry, I just couldn’t resist. It’s this script! The lines are just so – y’know, crap sometimes . . .’
‘Yes, thanks, really helpful that.’ The director wasn’t impressed. They were already running over time.
Kate rolled her eyes. Christ, what was wrong with people? It was only a bit of a laugh. ‘For God’s sake, I said I was sorry!’
‘OK everyone, we’ll pick this up again on Friday. Hopefully by then Ms Andrews will have pulled herself together. That’s a wrap.’ Like a scolded child, Kate headed off to her trailer, shouting goodnight to various crew members. Betsy, her make-up artist, called out to her, ‘You wanna get your slap off, sweetheart?’
‘No, I’ll do it at home.’
‘Your loss,’ Betsy joked. ‘I’d’ve done you a lovely head massage!’
‘Next time, babe! Love you!’
And she climbed up the metal steps of the Winnebago, her smile dropping as she shut the door behind her. She started changing out of her character’s clothes into her Armani jeans.
The wall lights were on and the electric fire. Something she held dear about being in her trailer when it was dark and cold outside. Her own little sanctuary. She loved night shoots when there were hours of hanging around. She’d climb into her little trailer bed and pretend she was eight again, all cosied up and safe. She pulled on her cashmere V-neck and caught her reflection staring back from the mirror on the laminated wall. She looked her age today. The dark circles were pushing their way through the matt concealer under her eyes. She needed another vitamin B shot from that doctor in Harley Street. Couldn’t afford to get run down with another eight weeks’ filming to do. And she really must give up smoking. She picked up her packet of Marlboro Lights, lit one and inhaled defiantly at the sign by the fridge – Strictly no smoking inside this trailer. They all knew she smoked in there, but no one dared say a word.
A timid knock on the trailer door.
‘Don’t come in!’
‘Sorry, Kate, just to say your car’s ready when you are.’ It was Becky, one of the runners, a sweet and lovely girl whose kindness never ceased to amaze.
‘OK, thanks, Becs. Be there now.’
Kate took four more rapid puffs on her cigarette, squeezing out every last drop of nicotine, before running the stub under the tap and throwing it in the bin.
She shut her eyes for a few seconds and sighed. The blackness was heading her way. That godawful, disempowering gloom that crept up from time to time and engulfed her. She could feel it, deep in the pit of her stomach – an anxiety, a fear of the unknown, an irrational sense of impending sorrow. She had to banish it before it sank its claws into her again.
She looked at her reflection, determined, gritted her teeth and said, ‘Come on. Get. A. Grip.’ Then she painted on the well-known Kate Andrews smile and opened the trailer door.
Dougie, her driver, was waiting by his black Mercedes, drinking coffee from his ubiquitous Thermos mug. He shouted across to her, ‘Got anything you want carrying, sweetcheeks?’
‘Only my sorry ass!’
‘Can be arranged.’
‘Oh you old smoothie, Doug.’
And Dougie laughed, slightly too loudly. Sometimes the film-set banter was exhausting. Always having to keep up this pretence of ‘all mates together’, having to be constantly upbeat, constantly cracking jokes, constantly being a ‘really good sport’. She imagined Dougie telling his wife, or the other drivers, She’s a little diamond, that Kate Andrews. Won’t hear a word said against her. Down-to-earth, heart of gold, wicked sense of humour . . . Kate knew how important it was to stay in Dougie’s good books. She never knew when she’d need to call in a favour.
Kate dug deep and went into overtly jolly mode. ‘Come along then, Douglas! Take me home and don’t spare the horses!’
Forty minutes later, Kate was fast asleep in the back of the car. She always slept on her way home. Dougie knew the routine: ten minutes before arriving at her house, he would wake her so she could have a sneaky ciggie out the window.
‘Kate . . .’ he whispered. He didn’t want to alarm her. ‘Not far now.’
She stretched and yawned, waiting for Dougie to say the inevitable, ‘Careful – you’ll start catching flies you stay like that too long!’
‘What time is it?’
‘Quarter past, treacle.’
She reached into her bag for her fags, took one out and lit it, rapidly winding down the window to blow out the smoke and relishing the comforting blast of cool air on her face. The Chiswick traffic was slow. She adored this time of evening, passing houses when it was dark: people with their curtains open and their lights on unwittingly presenting private shows for passers-by who peeked anonymously into their lives.
‘I’m sorry for smoking in your car, Doug, it’s really selfish of me.’
He was thrown by her uncharacteristic humility. ‘That’s alright, darlin’. What the eye don’t see, eh?’
The traffic drew to a halt again. Kate looked inside the front room of a ground-floor flat. A woman sat on her own, an empty dinner plate in front of her, flicking channels on her remote. She gave up, threw the remote across the room and buried her head in her hands. In the house next door a couple were rowing – the woman raised her arms, gesturing in defiance, the man just kept shaking his head. He appeared to be trying to speak, but she was talking over him. The car moved slowly on. Three houses down, two women were laughing at something one of them was reading from a letter, wiping their eyes with joy. The joy turned to a hug. The hug turned to a kiss.
‘Are you happy, Doug?’
‘Oh y’know me, Miss! Can’t complain!’
Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, could be worse – all the trite expressions people relentlessly churn out, making light of all that pain, giving away not the slightest hint that they’re feeling demolished inside. Unless of course they weren’t. Maybe she was alone in knowing this hollowness of spirit, this bankruptcy of the soul that caught her out when she least expected it.
What must it be like to be normal, she wondered? The world’s idea of normal anyway. She thought about Dougie’s wife. Dougie’s wife would be normal. Hairdresser’s on a Tuesday, Aerobics on a Wednesday, girls’ night on a Thursday (Dougie’s wife would call them ‘girls’, even though their average age was sixty-two), curry night with Doug on a Friday, Unless he’s workin’ – these television shows, he’s out all hours ferryin’ the stars back an’ forth, bless him. Then Dougie’s wife’d have the grandchildren on a Saturday or go shopping with her daughter-in-law, and do a nice roast on the Sunday. Every Sunday. Dougie’s wife probably had a little part-time job in a gift shop or a cafe and did her Christmas shopping by October the first every year. Kate longed to be normal. To never have to overthink or listen to the running commentary whirring in her head, telling her she was never good enough or real enough, calling her useless and ugly and fat.
‘What plans you got for your day off then?’ Dougie interrupted her thoughts.
‘Sod all, thank God.’ She reached into her bag for her diary. ‘Long lie-in, nice brunch at Carlo’s, maybe a little massage in the . . . Oh fuck.’ She’d found tomorrow’s date and there it was, staring back at her. She grabbed her mobile from her bag, scrolling through her contacts for her agent’s number.
‘You been booked?’ said Doug.
‘Looks like it.’ The call had connected. ‘Cynthia, it’s me. Sorry to ring out of hours but I’ve got no details for this thing tomorrow – it just says “school visit”.’
‘Yes, love, your old school.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘’Fraid not. You’re on the seven ten from Euston. They booked you a good six months ago and they’re very excited about it.’
‘How come I don’t remember agreeing to this? Edinburgh!! For fuck’s sake, Cynth!’
Cynthia Kane had been Kate’s agent for over fifteen years. She was used to Kate’s volatile temperament and her habit of not listening to information then claiming later not to have been told. Cynthia never took offence. ‘You want me to cancel?’
Kate sighed. Yes, she did. But in all conscience she knew it’d be too harsh. ‘No, it’s fine. Sorry. Could’ve just done with a day off, that’s all.’
Cynthia hung up, promising to have a word with the producer to see if they could find a few days’ grace in the filming schedule so that Kate could get some R & R.
‘Thanks, Cynthia.’ Kate sighed and looked out of the window. She knew what Dougie would say next and predictably he did. ‘No peace for the wicked, eh?’
‘Oh, can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, could be worse . . .’ Dougie was oblivious to her sarcasm and she took a deep draw on her fag before throwing it out the window, just as they pulled into her road.
Inside Number 29, Matt Fenton was adding red wine to a big pan of chilli. Despite the frilly pinny he was wearing, he still looked remarkably masculine, his white-blond hair and Scandinavian features adding to the image of a thirty-seven-year-old dad in touch with his feminine side. His daughter Tallulah watched him as she drank her bedtime milk, her stuffed panda, known as Panda, on her lap.
‘Why doesn’t Mummy ever make the supper?’ Tallulah was five. Tallulah was a Daddy’s girl.
‘Because Mummy is too busy earning money to keep you in Coco Pops and ice-cream.’ He leant down and picked her up. ‘Now young lady, time for your bed! And you, Panda.’
‘Panda didn’t like what you gave him for tea.’
‘Complaints in writing to the management, please.’
They’d just got to the top of the stairs when the front door opened.
Kate threw down her bag and her coat.
‘Hey, gorgeous!’ called Matt.
‘My favourite two people in the whole wide world! Let me just get a drink.’
And as she went off to the kitchen, Matt tried to ignore the slight irritation he felt. Kate had a habit of putting her glass of red before anything else, even kissing her five-year-old daughter goodnight.
‘I want to see Mummy!’
‘Tell you what, let’s tuck you in first, then I’ll get her to come and read you a story.’
‘OK.’ Tallulah preferred Mummy’s stories because she always put on silly voices.
In the kitchen, Kate drained her glass of Rioja in one before pouring another, which she would pretend to Matt was her first. When he came in, she was tasting the chilli. ‘Mm, this is good.’
‘She wants you to read her a story.’
‘Yeah, I will in a sec.’
They kissed. And Kate snuggled into his neck and shut her eyes for a moment. He put his arm around her and inhaled the smell of her hair, the familiar mix of hairspray, cigarette smoke and very expensive perfume. He could tell her mind was elsewhere.
‘We sold the Berlotti prints today. Restaurant in Hackney.’
‘Nice.’ She drank more of her wine, her eyes still shut.
‘And then I spent a good two hours designing your cake with Lula. But sssshh. It’s a secret.’
Kate smiled and pulled away from him. ‘She loves other people’s birthdays more than her own, I think.’
‘I know, and she’s particularly excited about yours, even though I’ve told her ladies of a certain age prefer to forget!’
‘Christ, is that what I am now – a “lady of a certain age”?’
‘You’re still a top bit of totty in my book.’ And he kissed her left ear. ‘You OK?’
She wasn’t. He knew the signs.
‘I’ll go see Lula.’
He followed her as she made her way upstairs, glass of wine in hand.
Tallulah was already out for the count, her tiny arms holding on tight to Panda as she dreamt. Kate stood in the doorway watching her little girl sleep as Matt came up quietly behind her.
‘She’s such a precious baby.’ Kate was barely audible.
Matt held her hand and they stood there in silence. Watching. Loving. ‘What d’you want to do for your birthday?’ he whispered. ‘She keeps asking.’
‘Oh, I dunno. I’ll be filming, won’t I?’ She thought for a moment. ‘Wish we could run away. Just the three of us.’
Matt looked at her. ‘Not getting sad again, are you, babe?’
She didn’t return his gaze. ‘No, course not.’
‘You would tell me, wouldn’t you?’
‘I’m fine, honestly. Just hate the idea of being another year older, that’s all. It’s alright for you. You’re still technically mid thirties.’ And before Matt could pursue it, Kate changed the subject. ‘I’ve got that school thing tomorrow.’
‘I know. It was on the calendar. I’ll take you to the station if you like.’ Kate hesitated. ‘Come with me.’ It was more of a plea than a request.
‘It’s Lula’s little concert, remember? One of us has to be there.’
‘You having a dig?’
‘What? No, don’t be daft! Look, you’ll be in Edinburgh by twelve, back home by eight. I’ll book us a table at Porto’s tomorrow night, shall I?’
‘Fucking school. They’ve only asked me back ’cos I’m famous.’
‘Er, well yes, I think that’s the whole point. They want to show you off. Look how successful the pupils of North Park Primary have turned out to be.’
‘Don’t tell my mother I’m going. She’ll be furious at me for not visiting.’
‘You can’t do everything, sweetheart.’ Matt stroked her cheek. ‘Come on. Bit of my lovely chilli and an early night. That’s what you need.’
It wasn’t. But then Kate didn’t really know what she needed. She let Matt take her hand and lead her downstairs, pushing away the suffocating gloom that was doing press-ups in the corner, biding its time, getting ready to pounce . . .
In bed that night Matt dreamt he was trying to fix a leaking roof. He was standing next to a cement mixer – churn, swish, churn, swish – but every time he reached in for more cement to fill a hole, another one would open up. And all the time the cement mixer kept turning – churn, swish, churn, swish.
He woke up, breathless and shaking, desperately trying to make sense of where he was. The bedroom. Good. That’s good. But he could still hear the noise – churn, swish, churn, swish. He looked at Kate’s side of the bed. She wasn’t there. And then he realized where the sound was coming from . . .
They’d lived in their home for six years. Moved in when Kate was pregnant with Tallulah. It should have been way beyond their budget, but Kate had just finished working on a lucrative drama series in the States so money was far from tight. A gorgeous Georgian detached house in Chiswick: they’d fallen deeply in love at first viewing.
There was nothing to do to it. Even the nursery was ready and waiting. Just one thing was missing: Kate wanted a gym. It was non-negotiable. And the room that Matt had hoped would be his study was clearly the only candidate for conversion. ‘It’s essential to my well-being and how I look for work.’ He’d been thrown by her unfamiliar tone – so much so that he didn’t argue back. ‘My looks are my assets, Matt.’ Then she’d laughed and kissed him and the subject was closed. This was the first time he’d had any insight into Kate’s determination to get what she wanted. But the more he got to know her, the more he saw this side of Kate’s personality – and he grew to understand that despite her vulnerability, her insecurities and this craving to be loved, she also had a ruthless ambition and an inner drive that could obliterate any obstacle in her way. He found himself respecting his wife for this.
And there he stood now, in the doorway of Kate’s gym, watching as she pounded away at the treadmill – churn, swish, churn, swish – sweat flying off her, headphones on, the muscles in her perfectly toned arms and legs rippling with every gruelling step. She was oblivious, muttering to herself through gritted teeth, ‘Come on, come ON!’ He felt that to disturb her would be akin to waking a sleepwalker, but what he was watching was insane. It was three thirty in the morning, for God’s sake. She had her back to him, the music in her headphones so loud he could hear the lyrics to the high-energy dance track even over the noise of the treadmill.
Then, out of nowhere, Kate slammed her hand down on the stop button and stood there panting. She ripped off her headphones and put her head onto the console. The tinny music carried on as the treadmill shut down. Matt didn’t want to frighten her but he knew whatever sound he made would make her jump. ‘Kate?’ he whispered.
‘Jesus! How long’ve you been there for?’
She grabbed her gym towel and wiped the sweat from her forehead as she sat at the end of the machine.
‘Couldn’t sleep. I was trying to wear myself out.’
‘Kill yourself, more like.’ He was sat now on the weights bench by the treadmill. She was within arm’s reach of him, and he could see how drawn she looked despite the flush of her cheeks and the perspiration glistening on her skin. He held out his hand to her.
‘Don’t. I’m all sweaty and disgusting.’
He hid his rejection as she got up and headed to the door. ‘Gonna jump in the shower. Won’t be long. Go back to bed.’ And she left him there.
The tinny dance track came to an end and in the silence Matt felt very alone.
Eight hours later, sitting in a first-class seat on the InterCity 125, Kate stared out of the window at the drenched and muddy fields, bordered with bracken and withering autumn trees. Electricity pylons stood proud like miniature Eiffel Towers, and empty training pitches cried out for players to come stamping across their sodden turf. Occasionally there’d be a group of sheep all facing the same way, munching grass like it was going out of fashion and showing no signs of feeling the cold, nestled inside their thick woolly fleeces.
Kate sipped her stewed and tasteless coffee and wondered when British train companies would catch up with the rest of the country and start serving a decent brew. Her stomach rumbled and, embarrassed, she looked round to check no one else had heard it. God, she was starving. She’d hardly touched the chilli the night before, nor the porridge Matt had made her before she left.
Not that Matt was aware. Over the years, she’d devised a handful of food-concealing techniques – chucking stuff down the loo, mixing it into plant-pot soil, hiding it in the dog bowl, or even – and this was the most extreme – when Tallulah was a baby, secreting unwanted food inside dirty nappies in the nappy bag. Sometimes she felt guilt for not telling Matt. But she knew he wouldn’t understand and he’d start lecturing her about nutrition and how unhealthy it was to be underweight. Easy for him to say – TV was ruthless. It wasn’t true what people said about the camera adding ten pounds: it added twenty. And Kate knew how important it was to look good – especially as she got older. She just needed to lose five pounds, and then she’d feel settled.
Across the carriage from her, an overweight businesswoman in an ill-fitting suit was talking on her mobile whilst intermittently sinking her teeth into a breakfast baguette. Kate couldn’t help but surreptitiously watch. It comforted her, seeing fat people eat – made her feel secure in her hunger and the knowledge that she herself was nowhere near that size, or that out of control. The woman was discussing quarterly figures. She appeared to work for some kind of national retailer.
‘Well, Paul will have to take that up with you, Dave,’ she was saying, ‘because the report I’m reading tells a very different story.’
As Dave presumably justified his actions on the other end of the phone, the woman took the opportunity to take another mouthful of her baguette. But she was too enthusiastic and her bite burst the yolk of the fried egg, splattering yellow goo all over her chin and right down the front of her shirt.
She didn’t know she was being watched, silently swearing and looking around for a tissue to mop up the mess. Not wanting to waste anything, she scooped up the spillage with her forefinger before licking it clean.
‘Yeah, yeah . . . no, go on, I’m listening.’ She clearly wasn’t. She reached into the vast handbag stuffed under her feet and began scrabbling around inside, still feigning interest in the phone call. Eventually she pulled out a packet of wet wipes, struggling to free one single-handedly. She ended up extracting two, and vigorously wiped her chin with them before attempting to clean up her shirt. In the process, she dropped her phone.
‘Bollocks!’ It went right underneath the woman’s seat. Kate could see ‘Dave – Bolton Branch’ flashing merrily away on the screen whilst his little voice cried out for help. ‘Hello? Hello? You still there?’
Kate looked away as the businesswoman’s hand flailed around under her seat, fruitlessly searching for the handset like one of those grabber machines in a seedy seaside arcade.
Suddenly there was a kerfuffle and Kate looked back again to see the woman now on her hands and knees, her broad backside majestically swaying between the two seats as she stretched for the phone. Her calves were thick and dimpled and the cracked skin on the heels of her feet peeped through the twenty-denier tights she was wearing. Kate offered up a silent prayer of gratitude that she didn’t look like that.
Phone retrieved, the woman clambered back into her seat, sweat now running down the sides of her neck. ‘Sorry about that, Dave. Where were we?’
Kate and the woman caught each other’s eye momentarily before looking away, mutually embarrassed, until the embarrassment on the businesswoman’s face turned to delighted recognition when she realized that she was staring at the Kate Andrews! Unable to withstand the awkwardness, Kate picked up her bag and headed towards the smoking carriage.
She stood in the vestibule at the far end of the train and lit up, the window open slightly for her to blow out the smoke. She thought about earlier that morning at home, waking up late to find Tallulah at the end of the bed, clutching Panda.
‘Hello, gorgeous. You gonna have a cuddle with Mummy before school?’
Tallulah snuggled up. ‘Daddy said you’re going to school today.’
‘That’s right, pumpkin. Mummy’s old school back in Scotland.’
‘Was Mrs Pickering your teacher?’
‘No darling – I doubt Mrs Pickering was even born when I was in school!’
Matt came in with Kate’s porridge and handed her a coffee. ‘Thanks.’ She took a big slurp. ‘Oh why do I have to go, Matt?’
‘Babe, you just have to show your face, that’s all. Let them take a photo, say a few words about how humbling it is to be there. They’ll be so disappointed if you cancel. It’s their centenary!’
‘Yeah, but it’s not like I went there a hundred years ago, is it?’
‘State of you, this morning, you look like you might have done!’
Matt laughed. ‘Honestly, what was all that about? Bloody marathon in the middle of the night.’
Kate sighed and looked away.
‘Daddy, you said a bad word! – Panda says you’re very naughty.’
‘Yes I am. Sorry, Panda. Now let’s leave Mummy to get dressed – she’s got a train to catch.’
Tallulah jumped off the bed and ran out onto the landing. Alone with Kate for a moment, Matt leant over and smoothed her cheek. ‘I’ll see you tonight, bub. I’m going to ask Hetty to come. You don’t mind, do you?’
‘I mean, if you’d rather it was just us two . . .’
‘Hetty is always welcome, you know that. She’s one of the few people in my life who never irritates me.’ She took his hand, kissed it and whispered, ‘I love you so much, Matt. I’m sorry I’m such a monumental pain in the arse.’
Kate knew how much it meant to him when she was kind, how it pulled the rug from under him when she showed him any rare sweetness. Berating herself for not treating Matt better, she vowed to try harder. Whatever demons took up occasional residence in her head were certainly not put there by Matt.
‘Eat your porridge, Goldilocks,’ he’d said and she watched him chase after Tallulah, sighing at the prospect of the day ahead. What had she been thinking, saying yes to this school visit? She must’ve been drunk at the time. Or distracted. Because going home to Edinburgh was not something Kate did unless absolutely necessary, like when she’d returned for her grandmother’s funeral, or for Christmas five years ago when her mother refused to take no for an answer. There were too many ghosts in the Scottish capital and she already felt haunted enough.
She lit up a second cigarette. Chain-smoking helped alleviate the anxiety gnawing away inside her like a rat on a bone, but only briefly. She closed her eyes and let the brutal force of the air outside blast her face as it rushed in through the window.
It had been seventeen years.
In the early days, she’d patiently waited for the healing power of Time to work its legendary magic, to mend her and make her feel better again, just like the aphorism always promised it would. And yes, the pain had diminished considerably since then. But she’d eventually come to realize it would never leave her completely, and hardly a day went by without her thinking about what had happened or wondering how her life might have turned out had a different choice been made.
Time had given her something else, though: an expert ability to steel herself in the face of any unwelcome emotion, to never allow in anything which she couldn’t control. It wasn’t much of a consolation prize, but it was better than being at the mercy of her enemies: Weakness and Vulnerability. When it came to self-admonishment, Kate was a boot-camp bully. ‘Pull yourself together, for fuck’s sake,’ she whispered, drowned out by the invading wind.
‘We will shortly be arriving in Berwick-upon-Tweed,’ the distorted tannoy voice of the train manager announced. Kate took her final puff and threw her stub out of the window before cramming two sugar-free mints into her mouth.
As the sliding door of the carriage opened to let her back in, she noticed the businesswoman now tucking into a large croissant and jam. Kate’s stomach rumbled again and she inwardly purred with self-righteousness. The woman called over to her, flakes of pastry framing her mouth, ‘Can I just say, I’m a big fan of your work, Miss Andrews!’ and she smiled as she carried on munching.
The taxi driver was also a fan. Not only that, he was a fan with career advice and not afraid to dish it out. ‘Aye, see when y’did that show on the BBC? About the nurse?’
‘Ah, you mean Sisters?’
‘Nooo, they were nurses, nae sisters!’
Kate bit her tongue. Keep smiling. ‘Yes, it was called Sisters – did you like it?’
‘What a load of bollockin’ baloney!’
‘Thanks,’ she muttered.
‘Ey, don’t get me wrong, ye were terrific in it! Full o’ sass an’ spark, eh? But your wee fella, the guy with the eyes . . .’
‘That’s him. I canna stand the man. With his wee gurnin’ face all twisted up like a neep.’
‘A lot of women find him very attractive.’
‘Pfff, the man’s a prize jessie, no mistake. Calls himself a detective? They say he shaves his chest! I mean, have ye ever heard anythin’ so—’
‘You can pull up just here actually, I’ll walk the rest.’ Kate had had enough of his blethering.
‘You sure, hen? It’s nae bother for me to—’
‘No, it’s fine. Honestly. I fancy walking.’ She took out a twenty from her purse. ‘Keep the change.’
‘You little angel. Tell you what, it’s nice to have you back in your home town, Miss Andrews. A lot of folk they leave an’ come back all pumped up with their English airs and graces, but you—’
‘Hey, I’m married to an Englishman, y’know!’ She chided him with a smile.
‘Well, we can’t all be perfect.’ And he laughed. ‘Ye take care now – here’s my card in case you need fetching back.’
She took it and got out of the car, absorbing the sight before her. Just a hundred or so yards away stood the school gates of North Park Primary, now painted green instead of the shabby white they’d once been. Behind her the taxi pulled away with a cheeky hoot of his horn.
Walking through the gates felt strangely comforting. On the rare occasions she came back – a handful in the last seventeen years – she’d pretty much stayed at her parents’ house for the duration of her short visits. She’d certainly never ventured up the Queensferry Road to the site of her old school. But returning here now, to a place where she’d only spent six years of her life, really did feel like coming home.
She made her way to the main reception. The large oak and glass door with its brass fittings had been there in Kate’s day. She turned the handle just like she would’ve done thirty-odd years ago – but nothing happened. It was locked. A face appeared on the other side. ‘You have to buzz the buzzer.’ This was Mrs Crocombe, the school secretary.
‘Can’t you just let me in?’
‘No, you have to buzz the buzzer.’ Mrs Crocombe was a stickler for school rules, even when they didn’t make sense.
Kate, on best behaviour, smiled politely and buzzed the buzzer. ‘Hi, I’m Kate Andrews and I’m—’
Mrs Crocombe cut her short. ‘I know who you are, my dear. In you come.’ And she opened the door to let her in. Kate resisted commenting as she stepped into the foyer. ‘Headmaster will be with you shortly.’
‘Right. OK, thanks.’
Something about Mrs Crocombe’s reverence for the term ‘headmaster’ and the fact that she missed out the word ‘the’ when referring to him made Kate want to rebel and unforgivably misbehave.
Mrs Crocombe left Kate standing alone, serenaded by the sound of small children singing a hymn in the hall nearby.
‘Dance, dance, wherever you may be . . .’
She looked up at a huge mosaic-effect banner, made no doubt by hundreds of small hands holding Pritt Sticks and bits of coloured paper. It declared ‘North Park Primary 100 years! Welcome’. And scattered beneath it on several noticeboards were dozens of photographs of the school since its opening in 1902. She peered closely at the smiling, fading faces.
‘Recognize anyone?’ The Headmaster was looking over her shoulder.
‘Oh, hello. I was just—’
‘Brian Boyd. It’s an enormous pleasure.’ He held out his firm hand for an even firmer handshake. ‘Of course, I never taught you, but I was trying to work out when you left.’
The Headmaster whistled his incredulity. ‘So Colin Marshall was in charge then, I believe. I wasn’t sure if . . .’
But Kate wasn’t really listening. She was still trying to take it all in. ‘It’s almost exactly the same . . . the kingfisher statue, and . . . and the floor . . . the woodblock floor . . . and the door handles, and even the smell . . . What is that smell?’
‘I like to think it’s a mixture of hard work and happy times!’ This was Brian Boyd’s mantra. He was so proud of its invention that he used it whenever the opportunity arose.
Kate edged towards the main hall, drawn by the sound of the singing. ‘Dance, dance, wherever you may be . . .’
‘Can I have a little peek?’
‘Be my guest. Infants’ assembly.’
‘I am the Lord of the Dance, said he . . .’
Tiptoeing up to the window in the door at the back of the hall, she looked inside and saw a hundred kids, the oldest no more than seven years of age, sat cross-legged, dutifully singing words they didn’t really understand. ‘I remember this one!’ She blinked back sudden tears as she sang along in a whisper.
‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be . . .’
She hadn’t expected this. To be taken hostage by emotion and led down Memory Lane, transported back to a simpler, painless time in life, unfettered by the complications and inexplicable fears of a grown-up world.
‘And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he!’
‘I thought you could meet the Year Sixes first.’ The Headmaster was always on the go and oblivious to Kate’s nostalgia. ‘Year Six translates as top juniors in old money!’
‘Yes, I know.’ She snapped out of her reverie. ‘I’ve got a five-year-old myself, so . . .’
‘Right. Well, it’s in the same place that it always was – up the stairs, end of the corridor. Shall we?’
As they mounted the steps, she remembered instantly the feel of the handrail and the sensation of running her little fingers up and down its polished mahogany. She carried on down the corridor, the Headmaster by her side wittering something about class sizes and downturns in economy. Kate could hear children laughing, reciting, shouting in the classrooms as she passed, their voices blending with those of the ghosts of pupils past.
Blissfully ignorant of what she was thinking, the Headmaster trampled all over her private thoughts and announced, ‘Course, we’ve had eighteen fire doors put in since you left. And a computer suite. Right, here we are.’
They’d stopped outside the final classroom. This used to be Mrs Jackson’s room when Kate was there nearly thirty years ago. But now the plate on the door bore the name of a different teacher.
Kate felt simultaneously sick and exhilarated. It couldn’t be, could it? A loud rushing in her ears and she subtly steadied herself with her hand on the door frame. Fortunately, Mr Boyd didn’t notice. Kate gathered herself.
‘Not . . . Callum MacGregor?’
The Headmaster knocked enthusiastically on the door. ‘That’s right. Joined us last year from St Mary’s in Portobello. Deputy head. Quite a coup!’
A voice came from inside the room. ‘Come in.’
Kate couldn’t focus, could barely hear. Her mouth felt like it was filled with sand. The Headmaster, still wittering, opened the door and made way for her to go in. But her feet wouldn’t move. She stood rooted to the herringbone tiles of the junior-school corridor floor.
Sitting at his desk, in front of a classful of excitable eleven-year-olds, was the man she had fallen in love with seventeen years ago. Her voice wouldn’t work. Nothing would work.
Callum looked at her. Gentle.
Unsurprised. ‘Hello, Kate.’
If you're disappointed not to be going away this summer, console yourself with these disastrous trips from fiction. They'll make a fortnight on the sofa all the more enticing.