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Authors: Michael Cannon

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BOOK: Four New Words for Love
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I went back to the shop and asked if I could work further back from the pavement. I didn’t want some window-shopper from the Social seeing me. I spent a fortnight in the stock room. Their
system was obsolete. Understanding it was both boring and difficult. I replaced it, kept less stock and moved it quicker. The woman I’d filled in for came back from holiday to find her
week’s work could be done by Monday afternoon.

‘What does this mean?’ she said.

‘It means you can get on with doing other things.’

Up till then she’d always put on an air of superiority and had let it generally be known that she only worked for pin money, as a break from the women’s guild or whatever. But when I
said she could do something more she came out with language you don’t hear on the BBC. ‘Careful,’ I said, ‘one doesn’t want this getting back to Philippah on the
badminton committee.’ By mid-afternoon she was two steps up a ladder in the front window, complaining heights made her dizzy and trying to work up a case for constructive dismissal.

They asked me to work full time. I told them to make me legit and then told the Social I’d just found a job. The fact that I wasn’t pregnant came out in the exchange. They let me
stay in the flat minus the subsidy. I earned a pittance. Tax hadn’t occurred to me. It’s never touched anyone I know. The first official wage packet listed the deductions. I felt no
better off than before, except that I was one of the faceless drones paying for the likes of Lolly and Dad.

My social life still stretched no further than the cinema. I was working myself up to a quiet night down the pub. Lolly appointed herself social convener. A quiet night is a failed night by her
reckoning. At that time there was still a liner of sorts anchored in the Clyde, used as a floating casino and dance club.
HMS Fornication
, a rust bucket of emergency fucks kept afloat by
sheer exuberance and a life belt of spent condoms. The licensing laws allowed all-night drinking. A whole social stratum of Glasgow was banged into existence against the cracked port holes on that
boat. Young girls tripped up the gang plank in slingbacks, hearts full of high hopes, handbags full of illicit drink, and lurched down four hours later, stomachs full of Bacardi, uteruses full of
cooling spunk, the future single-parent families of the city. To the right-minded city fathers and the hard-line religious types, it was Sodom and Gomorrah on the quayside. It was either going to
sink or get closed down. The breaker’s yard beckoned. The boat’s days were numbered. Word got around. The final weeks were frantic. Girls wearing outfits that wouldn’t keep them
warm in Tenerife stood at the dockside in a wind that would cut cardboard, trying to talk their way past the bouncers.

‘I’ve got tickets for the boat on Saturday.’

‘I thought we were taking it easy, going to a quiet local pub.’

‘There aren’t any quiet local pubs round here. And even if there were, they’ll still be here when the boat isn’t.’

She turned up on Saturday to help me get ready. She’d topped up her tan and squeezed herself into some corset arrangement that squeezed everything up and out like a market garden display.
I felt like the desperate sister they let out the attic when the gentleman caller comes round. Lolly went through my wardrobe full of ‘this won’t do’s and ‘is this a
sack?’ and ‘too dull for Mrs Menopause’ and ‘this is sexual kryptonite’ and that sort of thing. Her compromise solution was for me to keep on what I was already
wearing and leave most of the buttons undone. But I didn’t spill out strategically the way she did, and I didn’t want to either. She insisted on a photo. I look like a maiden aunt
who’s run out the burning house without stopping to get properly dressed.

We had to wait on the quayside even though we’d tickets. The wind funnelling up the Clyde estuary was vicious. The buttons didn’t stay undone. I’d had the presence of mind to
put on a coat. Even though I’d three times more clothes on than Lolly, I was freezing. She wasn’t. It wasn’t just natural insulation, she’s got some kind of hormone that
kicks in when drink, fun and men are involved that makes her immune to cold, exhaustion, embarrassment, subtlety or any of the other things that inhibit the rest of the world. My hands were plunged
into my coat pockets. When she handed me my ticket I was shocked at how cold her hand was.

‘Sometimes you’ve just got to teach your body who’s boss.’

The bouncer looked at the heft of her bag. ‘Full,’ she said, ‘like your balls.’ He smiled and waved us up the gangplank. We walked into a wall of noise. Music spilled out
from the dance floor, flaking rust, and pulsed its way into the casino where Chinese waiters were going frantic round the tables. Lolly ordered two glasses of tap water from the bar. The guy put
them down with a bang. This didn’t cover the overheads. We went into the toilet and Lolly fished out the gin and mixers from her handbag. The place was crowded out with girls doing the same.
Dope smoke was rising out two separate cubicles like talking smoke signals, adding another layer to the smell of hairspray and cheap perfume. Girls were renewing their lippy or mascara already. The
noise was tremendous, with about fifteen simultaneous conversations and disembodied shouting from the booths. You could get drunk on this alone, and I watched Lolly take a giant breath and joyfully
expand. She was in her element in that bouquet of ripe, ready women. It affected me too. I felt light headed as we walked back towards the music and looked around. Lolly leaned against a pillar and
watched me looking, a half ironic look on her face. She has technique she usually employs, like one of those angler fish you see in telly documentaries, down miles deep, where there’s no
light, suspending her bait. Once a victim gets too close to see what’s flashing it’s too late. But she wasn’t doing that yet.

‘He’s not here yet,’ she said.

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘You’re not a very good liar.’

‘I think I must be too old for this place. I don’t see the attraction any more.’

‘Here it is coming.’

I turned to her and we both managed a quick refill, pouring from her handbag like a goatskin, before I turned back and pretended to look anywhere but in his direction, as he weaved his way
through the bodies towards us. He staked his claim without a word. That annoyed me. I let him stand for a long time before pretending to notice.

‘So you’re back in circulation.’

‘I’m not a corpuscle, Nick.’ Lolly’s nodding approval behind his back, because this is one we haven’t rehearsed.

‘Want a drink?’

‘I’ve got a drink.’

‘Want to dance?’

‘That’s why I brought my handbag.’

‘Want some fresh air?’

‘You’re fresh enough.’ Lolly gives me the thumbs up.

‘I only heard about it afterwards. Gina, I’m so sorry...’ He lets his voice tail off with his falling gaze, puts his drink on a nearby table and pretends to study the floor for
about twenty seconds. Of course it’s complete fucking rubbish. You’d have to live in a submarine at the bottom of the Clyde not to hear about anything that goes on round here.
Nick’s emotional range is about as deep as his intelligence. He has a series of poses he strikes, like something out a mediaeval tapestry, that are supposed to represent sadness, reproach,
regret or whatever. I don’t know if he’s actually capable of feeling anything. He tries to match his appearance that he’s always aware of to what he thinks other people think he
should be feeling, groping his way towards a combination, like a colour-blind electrician. At least he does that as long as he’s trying to get something, like sex or promotion. The rest of
the time he doesn’t give a fuck. This attempt looked like constipation.

‘You know me, Gina. I don’t walk away from my responsibilities. If only I’d known.’

I’m distracted by Lolly sticking her fingers down her throat and miming a hurl. ‘Three’s company,’ I say, across his shoulder. She leans towards me in a conspiring sort
of a way. I’m assuming it’s a joke at Quick Nick’s expense, some dig at his spurt problem, but it’s just to give me another refill. I’ve been drinking in big nervous
gulps since pretending not to see him. He waits till she goes before coming out with a real fucking howler.

‘Somehow, Gina, I think whatever comes out of you and me being together can’t be bad.’

Is he talking about the act of him making his deposit or the end product? Does he even know what he’s talking about? You can’t assume Nick’s words mean anything because
it’s almost impossible to overestimate his superficiality. But I know what to say to him right then and there: ‘Well, that’s all right then. You wouldn’t have minded my
varicose veins and heartburn and piles and tiredness and clothes always drying over the radiator and you doing two nights and a Saturday to make ends meet and my cracked nipples and the teething
and the sleepless nights and the resentment that there’s someone that isn’t you monopolising my tits and the realisation that if you’re any kind of a parent at all you’ve
got someone depending on you for the rest of your life.’ But I didn’t say any of that. I felt dowdy, surrounded by all these multi-coloured, high-octane girls. He’s very handsome.
Wherever we went he was the focus of attention, girls always looking at him and now girls looking at us, obviously wondering what he saw in me. Because it was me he’d crossed the room of all
those glances to talk to, and not just for old times’ sake. And I stood basking in his gaze, wanting to believe in its sincerity, because for the length of time it was focused on me it
didn’t seem to matter that I looked as if my clothes were held together with safety pins. I wanted to be wanted, and he wanted me, and although these ambitions weren’t a perfect fit I
was prepared to live with the overlap because, like the song says, he made me feel like a natural woman.

‘Friends,’ he said, offering his hand. I took it. I’d never shaken his hand before. I’d held it. Touching it again I felt a surge of hormones at the memory of his
handling me that made me want to lean into him.

‘Friends,’ I said.

‘Live and let live,’ he said.

‘Forgive and forget,’ I said.

‘Let the good times roll,’ he said.

So we let them roll in the back of his work’s van, parked fifty yards from the gangplank, suspiciously furnished with a roll-out carpet, and in my flat, his parents’ house, the
cinema, on top of the after-hours fabrication bench at his work and anywhere else that the mood took us. Once you got the first one out the way he developed the staying power that didn’t
deserve his nickname. When he looked into my eyes I wanted to believe what I saw, although I knew he was only watching me watching him. When I think back I believe that people were only real to him
to the extent that they reflected him to himself.

And we did forgive and forget. I once forgave him six times in a single night. I forgave him standing against the wall till the radiator burnt my arse, on top of the Ikea bureau that threatened
collapse, in the shower, on the floor and I can’t remember where else. And in all that forgiveness, although I thought I was diligent on forcing reluctant condoms, there was something that
gave, or I simply forgot. Lolly was in the flat when I came out the toilet with the reading. I told her not to say anything. Within two days everyone who was anyone knew.

And then Nick forgot me.

Lolly said that although I might be the brains of the outfit, when it came to men I didn’t have the sense of a dog. I began an inventory of her past men characterised by the only thing
that distinguished them from one another: bad feet, bad teeth, bad hair, bad breath, socially bad, psychotically bad. She stopped me with one of her flat-footed pronouncements: ‘All I ever do
is fuck them.’ And I realised the depth of my stupidity. She saw people for what they were and didn’t care. I wanted to invent Nick to justify to myself I wasn’t just a fuck, when
deep down I knew he wasn’t even likeable.

I’d done enough crying for the rest of my life. I was calm. I’m only twenty, I told myself, and I’m in this for the long haul. I went to the shop and found out that given the
length of my official employment, rather than the time I’d worked there, my ‘statutory rights’ as the manager called them amounted to fuck all. Then there was another meeting with
the Social, which I immediately escalated by demanding to see a man, not the hatchet-faced cow from the last time. I didn’t throw a crying jag, I was all silent tears, Madonna-like suffering,
patience of a monument, the full nine yards. It worked.

I left Nick a voice message saying now was the time to prove he didn’t walk away from his mistakes, and to make me an offer. I left another message in case he didn’t understand the
first. I said I didn’t expect a white wedding, or any kind of wedding at all, or even for him to stick around, but that he had to provide some kind of financial support for his kid. Lolly was
for the pre-emptive strike, ‘calling in the authorities’ as she put it. She’s got a total disregard for all authority until she needs it. I wanted to give him the chance. But it
turned out that Nick had evaporated, left home, moved job, maybe had plastic surgery and was now a woman with big tits in Rio de Janeiro as far as getting hold of him was concerned. Lolly said that
if he had a pay packet the bastard could be tracked down. When my wellbeing was at stake she was fierce – all bets were off. I told her he could go and fester. He’d emigrated to that
limbo land of no responsibility beneath notice or worth caring about. He might bump into Mum. Dad’s reaction was predictable.

‘He’s not a pakki is he?’

‘No, Dad. He’s the same useless bastard as last time.’

And then he said something so unexpected it threw me.

‘Are you thinking of telling your mother?’

‘Firstly, I’ve no idea how to go about it, and even if I had, why would I allow someone time with my kid when they haven’t shown a shred of interest in me for eight

‘She might want to give something.’

I could imagine what ‘something’ might be. One of those giant furry animals you see miserable kids walking round zoos with, in tow with the absent dad, making up for all those lost
moments with some big unsuitable gesture and too many sweets.

BOOK: Four New Words for Love
6.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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