PART FIVE: The Canteen
‘There’s a cat following us’. ‘Ignore it Sally. It’ll follow us all the way home and the owners will miss it’. Nick turned to look at the ragged beast, ‘maybe they won’t, but still we don’t want it scratching at our door’. Again, Sally ignored Nick. She held back and clicked for the cat’s attention. It worked, she got excited as it moved towards her slowly.
‘Look, come on. We’ve got to get back. Leave the bloody cat alone will you Sally’. He stopped and walked back, he started to hiss at the cat. He passed the crouching Sally who immediately started to protest at him, ‘No, no. What you doing that for? Leave it alone. It’s a stupid noise anyway and it’s not working’.
Sally had never known a cat to make that noise. It just seemed stupid, a grown man hissing, flapping his arms and trying to frighten off the smug scruffy creature. The cat had been there and done that. He swung his leg, just missing the cats head. The cat didn’t care less. He just lent back an inch, wetted his nose with his tongue as the shoe passed. He sat there for a moment ignoring the attempt at one of his lives. Then buggered off, just stopping to spray a tree to show Nick that this was his turf.
Nick ground the key into the lock and opened the door. He stubbed his fag out on a brick and called Sally to come on. Sally zig-zagged and twirled off the pavement and up the drive. ‘What you doing?’ Nick asked her. ‘Following slug trails, Nicky, Nicholas, Nick, Nick,’ she said making faces as she spoke. Her eyes opened as far as she could get them. Rocking her head from side to side, she carried on in her practiced gruff voice, ‘I’m chasing slugs and snails and there isn’t any puppy dog tails. Seen any nick? Don’t stand on them if you have’.
Nick wasn’t a bad guy. He was just trying to find his feet with the girl. He’d felt uncomfortable at the distance she kept around him, as they walked back from school. It wasn’t easy, it was the second time he’d dated a girl with a kid. The first was a mess. Usually he dated single girls who wanted kids and security but he always let them down somehow. ‘No, I’ve not seen a single one’, he shrugged, opened the door a little more and went in. Then he stopped still holding the door, remembering his delivery was outside and turning to look out at Sally.
‘Right, come on, let’s get you in’, Nick said in a tone of light hearted but firm desperation. Sally walked in passing him, banging bags against his legs and knocking coats off the hooks with her back pack. She then dumped all her things where she stood and wondered off. Nick sighed and called her to come back and tidy the mess she made.
She passed him grumbling, ‘you’ve not shut the door Nick’, and walking, arms out like an Egyptian mummy, shut the door. ‘Can you sort this stuff out now? Please’. ‘No I need the toilet, I really do. I’ve got to go now,’ she said turning and pushing past him again. Nick closed his eyes and shook his head.
The bathroom door was locked. Sally fidgeted from foot to foot. ‘Mum, let me in, I need a wee’. Her body squeaked against the bath as she sat up. ‘Where’s my “hello Mum”?’ Her tone was tense, signalling she was in a bad mood. ‘Hello mum. Did you have a nice day? Let me in, it’s coming out,’ squealed Sally. Mum had told her numerous times that before she went anywhere she should use the nearest toilet. ‘I was busy Mum, I didn’t have time to go.’ ‘I wonder why?’ she whispered into the flannel. Bubbles foamed as her breath broke through the damp dripping rag.
‘Bloody hell Sally … OK you can come in’. The bolt slid out of the frame. Mum had given in. Tonight was over for her. Sally burst through the door. ‘Thank you, just as I get some me time’ she said as she tore the shower curtain shut. She lifted it and pulled her towel in under the sheet of misted plastic.
Giving up, Nick hung his coat up and went and got himself a drink. He opened the back door and sparked up a fag. He took a long drag and blew out hard. The water from the bathroom gently flowed in the down pipe next to him. He listened to it. It was Lisa finishing her bath. The bedroom door slammed, Sally and Nick felt uncomfortable where they stood and sat. They were in for it.
‘You could have shut my door too Mum’, Sally protested, still sat there. Mum stormed out of the bedroom and shut the door hard and went back to her room and tried to slam the door again. Her towel caught and muffled the thump.
Sally washed her hands and left, forgetting to flush. As the bedroom door opened, she grimaced a difficult toothy grin and then legged it down the stairs to avoid the inevitable telling off. Now was a perfect time to sweeten them up and do the jobs she’d stalled doing before.
Sally knelt on all the bags and fallen coats pondering where to start. Footsteps started down the stairs. It wasn’t the right time to do the job just then, she hadn’t done enough to please them, in fact she hadn’t even started. The job could wait and hiding in the dining room seemed the best bet. It was the farthest place away from mum at that moment. Sally needed a drink so she went via the kitchen because her drinks bottle was in the pile but had no time to get it.
Running into the kitchen she got caught up in Nick coming in from outside, exhaling shit air inside as he came. Part of the kitchen stank of smoke and bad breath. She gipped a little. Lisa called to Sally impatiently in a tone of practiced practical anger. ‘Sally! Get up those stairs and flush the chain’. Nick looked at Sally and she looked back at him embarrassed. He thumbed in the direction of the stairs and told her she best to hurry on.
Lisa stood there at the bottom, blocking the way. ‘Sorry, I was just getting a drink mum’. Unsure that the excuse would work, she shuffled towards the towelled figure. ‘Now Sally, you best go right now!’ seethed Lisa. ‘No. Actually you can wait there,’ she put her hand on Sally’s head, ‘…Nick come here!’
Nick had found his way to the front room. He had just sat down with the TV control in his hand as Lisa was telling off Sally. He found himself very quickly getting up. ‘So how was tonight?’ said the turbaned woman to Sally and Nick. ‘I thought I did very well, and everything was spectacular and everyone else were good too’ said Sally naively. Nick knew what was coming. ‘And Nick, anything you’d like to add? Anything I should know about? Picking up Sally seemed to take a while. Was it successful?’
He avoided her eyes and turned his gaze to look at the pile on the floor. ‘She’s here isn’t she! Think that was pretty successful, don’t you?’ He thought maybe he underreacted. He should have been the hero, run Sally off her feet home. Fly through the door telling all, shouting ‘David was there!’ repeatedly, before he could rest and tell Lisa the whole story.
‘Don’t be curt with me Nick. So do you think your dad enjoyed it Sally? Do you?’ Sally started to well up. Nick just wanted to come in, relax and get his thoughts together. Then when Lisa came out of the bathroom he would tell her the full story after Sally had gone to bed.
‘Megan Truss’s Mum text me…’ the pause was uncomfortable, ‘she let me know your dad was there. Sat a few rows in front of her and her family. So don’t lie or make any stories up’ Lisa’s post bath eyebrows frowned. ‘I distinctly told the school, he had to go through me to be able to see you. Useless idiots seemed to have forgotten my instructions’. ‘I did it Mum, it wasn’t Dad’s fault. I gave him a ticket’, cried Sally, breaking into her flow. She went almost unheard.
‘No Sally, your dad knows the rules about seeing you and he broke them. There are consequences for people who break the rules Sally, isn’t there they?’ Nick knew not to try and butt in, he’d get his turn. It just came sooner than he expected, ‘and Nick, when were you going to tell me, I feel very let down. I expected you to defend me and back me up’.
‘When I had five minutes Lisa, I had no idea he was there. I just went to pick her up as you were watching bloody Corrie and trying to have a relaxing evening’. Nick groaned on, ‘I thought I was doing you a favour’. ‘The favour is not in question…,’ she got lost in her argument. Frustrated, she forgot the point she wanted to make. She looked at Sally, recovered her train of thought, back-tracked and carried on.
‘Sally, I’m very disappointed in you, I thought I could trust you. I’m going to have to have words with your teachers’. ‘No please don’t mum, I’ll be good, I will’. ‘…and I don’t know where to start with your dad.’ Sally stood there with her head down and tears dripping off her nose and her top lip. ‘But mum please don’t…,’ she screamed in futile desperation as she snorted snot into the back of her throat. Sally pushed her bottom lip out and slumped on her short legs. She couldn’t hold back her emotions anymore and became inconsolable. Lisa stared to walk up the stairs.
‘That’s the end of it, now clean this mess up. I want everything put away in the right place, right away. No, hold on just a second, first go upstairs and flush the toilet!’ Lisa carried on back up the stairs herself trying to think of how to salvage what was left of the evening.
The office had to hit big targets this week and everyone was tired by lunch time. Megan’s Mum, Jenny, worked with Lisa. Things were easy between them but that day Lisa felt tense around Jenny, almost blaming her for her ruined night and David’s intrusion. Jenny had text Lisa to meet up by the lift. They did this ritually at nearly all their lunch breaks. They had synced their phones to the talking clock so they were ready on the dot, the morning ended and lunch started.
Today, Lisa felt obliged to go willingly with Jenny to lunch. Lisa really wanted to eat alone, she even wished that she hadn’t known about last night. Things would be so much easier if she didn’t, just a normal day at work and the previous night of almost complete relaxation with a little intrusion from Nick.
Jenny met Lisa at the lifts. She’d already pressed the button. Lisa stopped at the lifts just at the same time as a guy from head office and his partner arrived. They stood silently acknowledging the women with a nod and a thin line of a smile.
She took in a huge anxious breath that filled her lungs. The men’s aftershave flavouring her taste buds. Their arrival gave Lisa timeout from the imminent conversation Jenny was itching to have. Avoiding too much eye contact, the lift gave her about four minutes to get herself into the right, yet temporary, mood.
Walking into the staff room, they sat down and settled into their lunch. It seemed they all felt compelled to conform to the tabloid relationship guides that were left on the tables, now and again. It seemed fashionable.
Jenny piped up trying to finish a mouthful, ‘splits are always messy Lisa. There is no avoiding it.’ Shrugging, she exhaled, half arsed, Lisa grunted sarcastically and then asked Jenny, when was the last time she had experienced a split? ‘That’s not the point,’ complained Jenny. ‘Yes it is! The last time you split was after you left college. Then you got married to the next one that came along and you’re still together, the model partnership’.
The truth be known, Jenny’s own relationship was loveless. She took pleasure in Lisa’s problems and fuelled them, giving Jenny a release from her own problems at home. Problems that were different to those that Lisa had and was experiencing. Lisa felt trapped by those around her. It could be so much easier without other peoples’, especially Jenny’s, overbearing opinions. They held a defensive bias that was stereotypical of fringe friendships. Even the closest of friends took aggressive stances that aided nothing.
Someone outside of her circle could make things seem so much clearer and give a balanced viewpoint. A mediator and maybe a relationship counsellor but nobody had ever mentioned them to Lisa and David. Why would they know? Fall out conventions didn’t allow peaceful intervention. It would stop the lawyers leading their clients into long drawn out negotiations so they could earn their considerable wages.
Jenny continued in self-justification, nearly without taking a breath, ‘Well, I know you’ve got to fight him for everything. You have your rights and the kid’s rights too. You’ve got to do what you can for the kid’s sake’. Lisa just shrugged taking a mouthful. ‘You’ve got to tell him he’s taking the piss, he’s on the blag’, added a temp digging into her. ‘Been there done that. See this saggy stretched belly,’ she pointed and groped her stomach, ‘…all at the cost of a string of bad choices. Got the tits done, they’re better than I had before the babes came. Belly is next!’
The only man on the table got up, put his lunch back in the fridge and left the canteen. It wasn’t long before his place was taken by a supervisor. It wasn’t unusual that he sat there. He tried whenever he could to sit with them. He sat down and listened in as the temp continued on what repairs she needed at the cost of men that had been in her life.
Lisa and Jenny in a moment of solidarity looked at each other and filled their mouths. Moving tables wasn’t an option so they rudely blanked the temps attempts at making shared conversation. This table was for the locals and at times the temp filled a space. She was used to it. She was in and out of many offices.
It was hard to keep the others from contributing to the public, yet private, conversation. None of it was productive, it just seemed complacent. It was peer pressure. The audience seemed necessary. The anger she had had last night returned. She wanted something immediate to outwardly express her growing feelings and confront David.
‘You need to put him in his place’, added the supervisor. A married guy who had his own agenda, he liked Lisa. His words were enough. She took her phone out and bowed to her colleague’s wills. Her need to take action was final. Lisa’s discomfort turned to anger. A blank front quietly hid it from those around her. She burst out without thinking and hit hard. Her fingers did all the talking. It was subtle. Those around her carried on regardless, eating, reading and talking shit. She finished typing and checked it over.
‘You fucking wanker. You couldn’t just leave it and be happy with what I’ve allowed you. You’ve blown it. Now fuck off’.
She pressed send.