I Unlove You by Matthew Turner

Beatrice Butterworth is a bitch. That’s how the dream ends, me shouting and falling into a dark and eerie abyss. My eyes shoot open, and for a few seconds I’m at peace. There is no pain. There is no despair. There are no lies or deceit. There’s nothing but a soothing, calming, numbing nothingness, until everything turns against me and transforms into torture.
I Unlove You
I Unlove You by Matthew Turner
“Urghhh,” I groan, my head throbbing and throat dry. I close my eyes, light’s burden’s too great. My mind continues its unstable spin. Clenching my fists, I try and force my hands to my face, but I’m unable to move. I’m too heavy, far too heavy, as if something or somebody sits on my chest. What can I remember? What the hell happened? Where on Earth am I? The last thing I recall is standing outside of work, catching my breath after storming out of Tony’s office. Did I really say all those things to him? Did I tell him to sit down and shut up whilst I stood in his office? I couldn’t have. I wouldn’t have…only, I did. I remember it. I remember the white room and his drained face. It doesn’t seem real, but it is. “What the hell?” I whisper, each word whistling through my cracked lips. Blinking, I open my eyes long enough to explore the strange place where I lay: blue and grey tiles reach up to a cracked ceiling; an extractor fan vibrates in the corner, covered in dirt and murk; and a patch of green mould encircling a brown centre. I appear to be in a bathroom, and a rather grim one at that. I take a deep breath and focus my thoughts, but all I do is disturb my fragile stomach. I hurt, all over. Not just aches and pains of muscles and tendons, but a throbbing surge running up my left arm. I tap my right fingers against the hard, tiled floor, and run my nails along its surface to my thigh and onto my frozen skin. I hadn’t realised until now, but I’m cold; numb, even. Running my hand up and down my right side, all I find are boxer shorts, as damp and cold as my skin. “What the hell happened?” I mumble, using all my strength to roll on to my side. The pain running up my left arm intensifies, the pounding in my head gets heavier, the rumble in my stomach an unbearable tumble. “What have you done?” I mumble again, struggling up into a sitting position and evaluating the chaos around me. Two fallen and finished bottles of cheap whisky lay to my right, and a half-eaten burger to my left. All alone in this bare bathroom, I’m surrounded by a toilet and a sink, a cracked mirror above it. No towels, pictures, or semblance of life. No toilet roll, toothbrushes or shower. Just me and my mess, and a pile of vomit inches from my hand. “Oh, God,” I say, edging away from it. I search the area for my clothes, but find nothing on the floor except the empty bottles and discarded burger. Cuts and bruises cover my knees and shins, and a discoloured purple patch, consumes half my left arm. At least that answers the mystery behind my throbbing pain, although how it came to be remains a riddle. Closing my eyes, I focus and think, but all I remember is standing outside the office. I suppose I drank, but how much? I’ve suffered through horrendous hangovers before, but never like this. This isn’t me. I don’t do this. Neither do I confront my boss the way I did. I’m not sure who I am anymore. I may not remember last night, but I remember everything else. All those moments I wish I couldn’t. All those times I wish were different. Heaving myself onto my knees, I struggle to my feet and stumble towards the chipped and broken sink. Head spinning and body swaying, I cling to the porcelain with all my might. “Shit,” I sigh, staring at the apparent man looking back: red-eyed, with puffy cheeks, bruised forehead and grazed chin. My hair loops around itself into knotted strands. My nose, blue and tender, even larger and more crooked than usual. Despite feeling frozen and shivering, I drip with sweat. I have chapped lips and cracked skin, and patchy stubble breaking through the surface. “You did it, B,” I say, my eyes welling like they have so often of late. “You’ve broken me. You did this. I loved you and trusted you so much, but you’ve broken me.” I shake my head and wipe away the tears bulging in the corner of my eyes. “I hate you, B. I hate you.” MAY 6TH - THE BENCH OUTSIDE WORK: I love Yorkshire in May. We struggle through wet and windy winters, blustery and damp autumns, less than inspiring summers, but May brings warmth and sunshine and an optimistic dream that maybe, just maybe, our long overdue heatwave will come to play. It rarely materialises, of course, but May is a month I’ll always treasure. This is why I sit outside on my lunch break instead of at my desk. I’m a fully-grown working man of six months, university already a somewhat dimming memory, and this is the first time I’ve done anything remotely exciting during my lunch break. B’s homemade feta cheese salad is delicious as always; my coffee’s strong, working its magic; and my limited edition Alan Moore collection sits on my lap. I couldn’t ask for more than good food, good drink, and good reading on a sunny day like this. Combined with the fresh smell of nature in spring, it’s difficult to resist leaning back with a smile. I say nature, but Leeds’ city centre offers little of it. Instead of chirping birds, the rumble of footfall and cars, and idle chatter about reality TV shows, celebrity gossip, and who in the office is the bitchiest, rings true. I can’t say I dreamt of graphic design growing up, nor did I go to university with the hope of finding a standard job with a less than standard wage. Despite this, I’m rather content with the nine-to-five life. I may not create art on my own terms, or draw and paint as I please, but I spend each day designing, tinkering, and creating things that are seen and used in the real world. As I take a mouthful of salad, a chunk of cheese escapes and falls to my beaten brogues that I stole from my father’s wardrobe. I can’t imagine he’s worn them for thirty years, but they’re among my most treasured footwear. I hate new shoes. I hate most new clothing. It takes time for fabric to loosen and relax, whereas secondhand shopping takes care of this issue. I remember my second interview for this job, mere weeks after graduation, and the anxiety swirling within me, not because of the interview itself, but the potential conformity I’d have to adhere to. “Are the clothes I wear now okay for this job?” I asked Tony, worried I’d have to venture into Leeds on a Saturday afternoon and buy new suits, ties and shirts. The prospect made me dizzy, but thankfully he smiled and shook his head. “Don’t worry. Your clothes are fine,” said my soon-to-be boss. Leaning my head back, I close my eyes and take a deep breath of fresh air. I may be stuck in the centre of a city, but the linger of flowers and cut grass tickles my nose. I can practically place myself in a park, laid on a blanket as Simon and Garfunkel serenade Joey, B and me. Like I say, I love Yorkshire in May. It houses so many memories. It’s when my father taught me how to play the guitar, siting beside the canal as he shared tales of when he and Joey’s father were my age. “If you hold it like this,” he said, twisting my fingers into a G chord, “you’ll be able to play the chorus for Wonderwall.” Mouth agape, I shook my head. “Really, Dad? You think I can?” “Sure thing, kiddo,” he said, ruffling my hair. “Soon, you’ll be able to play anything you like.” It’s when Joey and I bunked off school when we were fourteen, so we could catch Richard Ashcroft play an intimate gig in Manchester. It’s not often my mother loses her temper, but she fumed that night when she had to pick us up after we missed the last train home. “I can’t believe the two of you,” she said, muttering in the driver’s seat. “What if something had happened? And skipping school like that…” She huffed and puffed. “If you ever do something like this again…” She never did finish that sentence. It’s also the time of year I first read The Watchmen. What began as a trip to the park to draw and sketch resulted in an afternoon of reading it cover-to-cover twice. “Amazing,” I mumbled over and over. “Incredible!” I’d always liked comics, but fell in love with them as I discovered one new graphic novel after another. And May is the month B and I first kissed, transforming our friendship into something more. “I wondered when you’d finally pluck up the courage,” she said, licking her upper lip. “I…well…you could have done it too,” I stammered. Shaking her head, she stroked my upper arm. “No, I didn’t want to take it away from you.” I may only have been fifteen, but during that moment I knew I’d spend the rest of my days with her. Smiling, I open my eyes and look across the flow of bodies rushing past my bench. In such a dash are the city’s busy-bodies, running to and from work, ensuring they make this meeting and that. I hope I never become so entwined in this world that I lose the magic of May. I like this job, I think, but not enough to lose this. Snapping me out of my reminiscing grin, my brick-like phone vibrates inside my tatty corduroy pocket. I sigh, reaching in to retrieve the object I hate so much, and use so little. “Hi, Joey,” I say, not needing to check the name on the screen. Only a few people have my number, and only Joey calls it. “Ausdylan Elvis Ashford. How are you, brother?” he says, practically singing my name down the phone. “I’m good, Joseph. Enjoying my lunch break in this lovely sunshine. What about you?” “First of all, I find it very sad you have a lunch break. Life’s a lunch break. And second, I’ve had an amazing morning and have good news.” “That so?” I ask, sliding a chunk of cheese into my mouth. “Sure have. I met a fantastic band, and we’ve been drinking since nine this morning. I’m pretty sure I’ve seduced them into signing with me for their next EP. I’ve sent you a link to their stuff. Speaking of which, have you listened to that playlist yet?” “Playlist?” “The playlist I sent you the other day.” I say nothing as I place another chunk of feta on my tongue. “On Spotify.” “What’s Spotify again?” He groans. “I installed it on your computer last week.” I laugh. “Yeah. I’ve not opened it.” “You live in an age of amazing technology, Aus. You literally have access to millions of songs, whenever and wherever you like. Yet you insist on using a phone as old as us, and can’t even bring yourself to click on a green icon your best friend went to the trouble of installing for you.” Leaning on my knees, I stroke my thighs that are encased in vintage corduroy that’s almost bare in patches. “What can I say? I spend all day working on a computer. I learned how to use Photoshop, didn’t I? What more do you want?” “That doesn’t count. It’s your job. This is music. Our passion. Our everything, remember?” I say nothing again, sipping coffee instead. “You’re impossible,” he sighs. “Not impossible. Simple. It’s the simple life for me, you know this.” “Whatever. Just promise me you’ll check it out when you get back to that god-awful office of yours.” “Okay.” “Because there are lots of people who come to me for new music, and here I am sending it to you out of the goodness of my heart.” “I said okay, didn’t I?” I say, sipping more coffee. “Just make sure you do. Oh, and that brings me to more good news.” “You mean Spotify wasn’t the good news?” “Do you want to hear it or not?” More silence. More coffee. “Good. Okay, so there’s this super hush-hush festival planned for later this summer, and some of the acts are future superstars. Well, me being my amazing self has managed to get our band added to the showcase. I’m not saying you should be on your knees bowing to me right now, but…” “Sounds good. When is it?” Coughing and spluttering, more inaudible white noise fills my ear. “Good? What do you mean, good?” “Well, it sounds good. It sounds like a great opportunity.” “Exactly!” he says, coughing some more. “Great, not good.” “Okay,” I say, laughing and looking at my watch. “I’m excited, but…” “Then sound like it,” he snaps. “I will, but first I have to get back to work. We don’t all get to waste away our days pretending to own a record label.” “Who’s pretending? Plus, you can come work with me whenever you like.” I finish off my coffee and place it on the bench. “You don’t need a graphic designer.” “It’s a good thing you’re not a graphic designer then.” I roll my eyes, continuing to pack my lunch into my ancient leather satchel. “Don’t start this again.” “Fine, but only if you meet me for a drink later. Say, six?” “One drink.” “That’s all I ask, brother.” “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Anyway, I do have to go.” “Sure thing. Have fun.“ Hanging up, I place the phone back into my pocket and wrap my satchel around my shoulder. Already the onrush of people has died down. In another ten minutes this area will be desolate until the end-of-work chaos begins. I hate speaking on the phone, but especially to Joey whilst at work. I leave the conversation like this each time: confused, deflated, longing for something, or feeling like I should cling to something from the past. Growing up, we rebelled against a structured life like this. We shared dreams with one another, although they were always his. I nodded along because he made them seem so achievable and real. But they were never dreams for him, they were promises. He’s free to do as he wishes, and to create and live life, whereas I catch the same train each day, sit behind the same desk, and exist instead of live. But I don’t think it’s the longing that scares me, rather the fact I don’t hate this existence. I should. I should long for more and stride towards the world he’s built, and the one B has, too. Yet this longing for more melts as soon as I think about her, and all those lazy Sundays we’ll share, the family holidays, the normal evenings that seem boring to everyone else but us. I approach the gleaming aluminium door with flawless glass, nudging it open and sliding into the air-conditioned reception area. I should hate this. How many buildings like this exist in Leeds? How many around the country and the world? I don’t own new things, but everything here sparkles. Lost in a vast, white, soulless area, this single room defines everything I fought against. I should hate it, but I don’t think I do. I’m not sure how I feel about that. MAY 6TH - THE PUB: A few months ago this commute home was different. The cramped and hot conditions of the train carriage were welcome. Outside: rain, wind, an icy chill; some evenings I’d huddle my arms together and contemplate missing my final stop, listening to one song after another with my eyes closed, forgetting the winter solace existed at all. Not now, surrounded by men in rolled up shirt sleeves and girls showcasing their legs. As Sowerby Bridge station approaches, I’m already at the door, eager to hop off and eke every sliver of sunny delight. The rest of the afternoon dragged a tad, Joey’s persistent reminders fading far too slow, but the end of work shuffle soon arrived and introduced me once more to this daily commute. As the train slows, my feet clench and fingers tighten around the old metal pole inches from the door. In a somewhat clumsy stop, I’m rocked backwards into the beefy man behind, his sturdy frame unmoved by my slender weight. Within seconds, the door opens and I’m met by a cooler, but still lovely, spring breeze. In this light everything looks like an old movie, when film was shot in film. That faded, somewhat washed out style, the greens on the trees teal, the blue in the sky periwinkle, and the golden yellow from a car striking as it reflects the sun hovering above a nearby warehouse. Everyone is in such a rush, just like during lunch. They practically sprint toward cars waiting to pick them up, down the hill to food and a ‘welcome home’ kiss, or maybe, like me, to the pub, where a necessary beer awaits after another humdrum day. I can’t say I’ve ever been one to rush, and like me, B likes to take her time. Why drive when you can walk? Why run when you can walk? Why sit when you can walk? Growing up, my father showered me with stories about how he walked everywhere. “I once got so drunk I woke up in a family’s cellar, and walked three miles home in the snow,” he told me after I asked him to drive me to Joey’s. “How did you end up in their cellar?” I asked. “And what’s that got to do with driving me to Joey’s?” “To this day, I have no idea. They weren’t impressed, though,” he said, looking past me and smiling. “And if I can wake up hungover, in a strange family’s cellar, and walk three miles in the snow, you can walk to Joey’s.” My father’s old stories usually feature snow. But where I once fought the thought of walking, I now embrace it. I love its clarity, and you cannot treasure this if you dash past, like the woman to my left, her phone tight to her ear; or the man marching to my right, flinging his arms like a North Korean soldier. I suppose this is why Joey’s constant reminder of yesteryear’s dream lingers. How easy it must be to lose yourself to the rush, the vim, the hectic nothing. I hate the idea of ending up like them, but maybe it’s already begun. Maybe accepting such a job is when the chaos takes hold. Nestled neatly within a valley, Sowerby Bridge loses the sunlight before most surrounding villages. The gentle slope into the heart of the place where I grew up already steals light and warmth. Hazy colour remains, but for us valley folk, darkness awaits. Passing the local swimming pool on my left, which used to be a market, and an odds-and-ends shop on my right, which used to be nothing, I cross the road and pass over the bridge my hometown’s named after. I love crossing it on a day like today, as a burst of wind mixes with my hair and mushes my messy fringe into my forehead. It’s not exactly a trip to the beach, where the sea air cleanses lungs and skin, but it’s as close as I’ll get. It’s amazing how I hate the wind of winter, but treasure the breeze of spring. They’re both the same, after all, but oh-so-different. Rounding the final corner, the pub where I spent most my early adulthood stands in waiting. Mine and Joey’s obsession with this place started long before we were able to drink. It’s where we played our first acoustic gig, brought in the New Year somewhere other than my house, and plotted world domination as our two fathers chatted at the bar. “In the future, normal guys like us will build record labels without the need for big offices and hierarchies,” Joey instructed when we were thirteen. “The internet is all we need, brother. And music. Real music. Music that’s better than sex!” Sipping lemonade, I nodded and shrugged. “How do you know what sex feels like?” “What’s that got to do with anything?” “How do you know if music is better than it, if you’ve never had it?” Leaning in and tapping my hand with two fingers, he said, “It doesn’t matter what sex feels like. When music is perfect, nothing in the world comes close. Not even Harriet Smith.” Smiling, he arched his back and gazed into the distance. “One day, brother. One day we’ll rule this world.” Opening the heavy wooden door, a wall of chitter-chatter hits me, groups of colleagues, friends, and couples enjoying after-work drinks. It may be early in the week, but this pub, at this time, in this weather, remains popular. Joey’s early, already stood at the bar talking to the barmaid. Only, she isn’t any old barmaid, but the barmaid. The girl. Harriet Smith, the one individual immune to Joseph Johnson's advances. For as long as I can remember, he’s oozed charm and an effortless swagger. Where girls call me cute and brother-like, they swoon over Joey, hanging on his every word. Schoolgirls, teachers, coaches, parents…it’s never mattered, he’s always had an aura that’s continued to mature with age. To all except Harriet Smith, that is. “Aus,” he shouts, holding up his arms and motioning me closer. “Harriet doesn’t believe me when I say she looks good tonight. What do you think?” Keeping his arms raised, his rolled sleeves reveal two defined arms flush with tattoos. From this distance, it’s a chaos of ink, but each line, word, and swoosh provides purpose and meaning. “Ermmm,” I stammer, unsure how to answer. “For some reason she doesn’t like it when I pay her a compliment. How crazy is that?” he says, sliding a fresh pint of beer to me. “Here’s round one.” “Cheers. I’ve no idea, Joe. One of life’s mysteries.” Rolling her eyes, Harriet shuffles along the bar. “Keep this one out of trouble tonight, will you, Aus?” “What he gets up to has nothing to do with me,” I say, as I enjoy my first sip of beer. “Why would you care if I found myself in trouble, Harriet?” Joey counters. “I thought you didn’t care what I got up to.” He smirks and leans closer to her, Harriet sighing and pursing her lips. It is, apparently, this smirk that drives women into an uncontrollable frenzy. I get it, in part, because my best friend is an attractive guy. Six foot two, dirty blonde hair he slicks to the left; thin eyes that house bright blue secrets; strong cheeks and a defined jaw, and a full but groomed black beard that defies his lighter hair colour. His smile, or should I say, lack of, is apparently all he needs. “It’s a dangerous feature,” said B, offering a female perspective as we strolled along the canal a few years ago. “Joseph has an extremely dangerous smile.” “His smile is why girls lose all rational thought?” I asked, shaking my head. “He doesn’t even smile. He just…smirks and pouts.” “Exactly. It’s smouldering.” “Smouldering?” “Yeah. It creeps out the side of his mouth. It’s effortless and nonchalant, and full of mystery.” “You’ve thought about this a lot, I see.” “You asked the question,” she said, kissing the corner of my mouth and working her hand up and down my arm. “Okay, so what you’re saying is, girls love his smile because he doesn’t have a smile?” “In a way, but it’s more than that. It’s the way he squints his eyes and bites his lip simultaneously. His whole face is in cahoots, and he knows it all too well,” she continued, mimicking her words with her own facial features. “Tell me about it,” I said. “So, what about my smile?” She wrapped her arms around my neck. “The cutest in the whole wide world, mister.” The way I looked at my best friend changed that day. No longer did I see broody and moody, but a dangerous weapon that finds its way in and out of daily trouble. It also confirmed my role in our friendship: the cute one, the brother-like one. Except to B, that is, and that’s all I care about. “What do you think, Aus?” Joey asks, snapping me from my memories. “Don’t you think it’s time Harriet agreed to go out with me?” “Absolutely not,” I say without hesitation. “See? Your only friend thinks you’re bad news,” says Harriet, lingering a few seconds before walking away. His smirk returns, this time aimed at me. “What was that? You’re supposed to help me.” “You need more than help. You’ve known her over ten years, and not once has she shown a glimmer of interest.” “Today’s a new day, Aus. And it’s a good day, too. This could be the start of a new journey.” I shrug and take another mouthful of cold beer. “The gig I sorted,” he continues, grasping my shoulders with his large palms. “Christ, it’s only been a few hours since I told you.” “Oh, yeah. Should be fun.” “Don’t get too excited,” he says. “Come on, let’s grab a seat.” He manoeuvres past the brick pillar with old music posters from my father’s generation. Decorated with old church benches, red leather couches and tiny green stools, there’s no defined style in this pub we call home. One wall houses antique clocks, letter boxes, typewriters, and lamps, whereas another is flush with photographs from some Parisian outing, aerial shots of our beloved town, and framed posters from famed gigs that never took place here. “Seriously, this is big,” Joey says, taking a seat. “I guarantee at least two of the bands involved will hit the big time. We play our cards right, and we could get some killer support acts next year.” I nod and focus on my pint glass, because watching him is one of the most exhausting parts of my day. He doesn’t sit and talk, rather drums home every point like a motivated salesman honing in on his commission. Lifting his palms and swaying his neck, he dances across from me whilst I sit in silence. They’re the roles we play, and although I should know better after all these years, it’s hard to fight his passion. I can’t fathom the conversations we’ve had in this pub, his dreams manifesting into my own. I can’t imagine who I’d be without Joseph-bleeding-Johnson in my life. I suppose it would be easier, but far less interesting. “And those guys earlier were insane. I can’t wait to sign them up. This is the summer, brother. This is the summer.” “Sounds good.” Sighing, he lifts his pint and consumes the dark bitter. “What’s up with you? Shit day at work?” he asks, lingering on the word, work. “Work is fine, thank you.” “Just fine?” “Sorry, work is wonderful. The best. Out of this world.” Laughing, he slaps the table. “You are full of shit. Don’t think I don’t know how much you hate that job. It’s just a matter of time until you join me and live a life of freedom.” Taking another mouthful of bitter, he rolls each sleeve further up his arms and brushes down his navy blue waistcoat. What started off as a wager before our band’s first show seven years ago, has become as notorious as his confident persona. Barely a day goes by without him wearing a three-piece suit; on warm afternoons like this, his waistcoat and tattoos are all he needs. “So, is B joining us this evening?” “Is she supposed to?” “She usually crashes our fun.” I plant my own palm on the table, the thud not nearly as impressive. “You are aware you’ve known her as long as me, right? And that we all hung out long before we started dating…” I tail off and sigh. “And yes, she may stop by…briefly.“ “Of course she will. You know, I’m amazed you manage a full eight hours at work without her. How do you cope?” “What can I say? It’s nice to love someone. It’s even nicer knowing someone loves you back.” “I suppose that means nobody loves me?” I shrug. “Well, I happen to love myself. Does that count?” I shake my head, folding a beer mat in half and tearing off the corners. “And I know you love me, and Harriet does, deep down.” “You’re delusional,” I say, balancing the small shreds of corner on top of the tent-like beer mat. “No way. She wants me. Just a matter of time until she realises it. And speak of the devil,” he says, motioning his eyes towards the door. I can’t help but twist, ruining my well-balanced stack of beer-mat shards. Although I know every inch of her body, every feature of her face, her scent, taste, and touch, watching B walk across a room is as magical now as when she first skipped into my life. A spring day not unlike this one, Joey and me lounged on a grass bank with footballs propping up our heads. Despite being strangers, she walked towards us like she’d known us a lifetime, twirling pieces of grass between her fingertips. “Hi. I’m Beatrice. But everyone calls me B…” Wearing a rich blue dress that drops just below her thighs and hides the long, firm legs I stroked and kissed last night, she walks towards the bar. Speckled with white flowers, the dress fans out as she twists from left to right, searching for me, no doubt, but catching familiar faces along the way. Nodding, waving and mouthing ‘hello’ to this person and that, she spots me and stops; smiles and blows a kiss through her red-lipsticked lips. “Evening, you two,” she says, sitting on the stool to my left. “Hello, you,” she continues, planting a kiss on my cheek, a kiss I’m sure marks me with dark red lipstick. “How are you, B? It’s been a while,” says Joey. “You miss me, Joseph?” “I’d love to miss you, but you never give me chance to. You’re always here,” he continues, showcasing his smirk once more. “Charming as always,” B says, facing me. “Let me guess, Harriet’s already turned him down, so he’s taking his frustrations out on me?” Laughing, I raise my eyebrows. “I don’t get it,” she continues, now facing him. “It’s like you have a reputation or something.” “It is strange,” I say. “It’s not like you go through women like meals, or can’t hold a relationship for longer than two weeks.” “Okay, I get it,“ he says, leaning back in his chair and propping his hands behind his head. “You’re both hilarious, and disgusting, might I add. Don’t think I can’t see you manhandling each other under the table.” “Holding hands counts as manhandling?” I say. “I’m also rubbing your thigh,” B counters. “Maybe that’s what he means.” “You think?” I say, leaning into her. “Okay, stop it. I hate it when you two do this shit.” “Do what?” she asks. “Look at each other like that.” “Like what?” I ask, keeping my stare on B. “With…whatever you call it. Love. That’s the word, right?” Standing up, B laughs and plants another kiss on my opposite cheek, evening out her artwork, no doubt. “As much as I’d love to stay and make you feel uncomfortable, I have to get to work. Just wanted to say hello and thank you for the letter,” she says, turning her attention to me. “I loved it,” she whispers. “I’ve just written your reply on the way here.” “Oh God, you don’t still write each other letters, do you?” Joey says. “I thought that ridiculous sex-less bet would put an end to that.” “And what’s wrong with writing letters?” she asks. “For starters, you see each other ten times a day. And there’s these things called phones that allow you to call and text each other.” “You don’t text the girl you love. You take the time to put pen to paper. Not that I’d expect you to understand,” I say. “You also have sex with the girl you love, not blue-ball yourself for six weeks.” “I didn’t blue-ball myself. We proved we could still have fun even if sex was off the table. Again, I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” Scratching his bearded chin, he mumbles something and pulls his tatty pipe out of his bag. “Although we’re not in a hurry to try it again,” laughs B, gripping my wrist. “No. No we’re not.” Looking between us both, Joey shakes his head whilst chewing his pipe from the side of his mouth. “Anyway…” B says, trailing off. “I’ll leave the two of you to it. I’ve got to go.” “Bye,” I say, kissing her warm lips. “Bye, mister.” With that, she hops to her feet and wanders off, and if there’s one thing better than watching her walk towards me, it’s enjoying her drift away. Each step flicks the bottom of her summer dress, revealing her long, pale thighs. “It’s not normal, you know.” “What isn’t?” I ask, returning my attention to Joey as soon as she passes through the door. “Watching a girl you’ve had sex with for seven years leave the room. And writing her letters. And betting each other not to have sex. And being so damn in love and disgusting.” “And why isn’t that normal?” “Because we don’t live in a Disney movie,” he says, handing me a napkin. “Clean your damn face.” “Hey, just because—“ “And stop tearing that beermat to shreds. You shouldn’t feel anxious right now, you’re with your best buddy in the whole world.” “Shut up, just a nervous habit, that’s all.” “And why are you nervous?” “You make me nervous with all your nonsense,” I say, smiling and retrieving the half-torn mat. “Anyway, don’t get mad at me because you’ve never felt it.” “Felt what?” “Love.” “And how do you know if you have?” he asks, placing his pipe into his mouth. “You’ve only ever been with B. I mean, you’ve loved that girl since we were twelve years-old. That’s ten years. You’ve never even kissed another set of lips.” “B’s are lovely enough, thank you.” “I’m sure they are.” His smirk returns. “Watch it.” He removes the pipe and twirls it between his fingers. “I love B. You know I do. As far as girls go, she’s the only one I can stand to be around. You love her. I get it…kind of. But if you’re not careful, this is your life forever. This job. This girl. A house and a car and a joint bank account. Are you telling me you won’t get to forty, fifty, or sixty, and ask yourself, ‘what the hell have I done?!’” Pipe back in mouth, he slumps in his seat. “If there’s one thing that stupid bet proved, it’s that you don’t miss sex with her. Proof enough, if you ask me. You should be living, brother. Not existing.” I drain the final drops of my beer and slide the glass in front of him. “I know this is your weird way of showing me you care, but a life without B would be existing. With her, I’m living. Anyway, you can’t talk about being normal.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “You take your grandfather’s smelly old pipe everywhere you go, and never once have you smoked it.” “That’s quirky. And unique. Plus, you know I like something to nibble on, and the ladies always like to test it out, too,” he says with a wink. “I don’t want to know what women do with your pipe.” “Yeah, you do,” he laughs. “Anyway, don’t change the subject. There’s not a chance in hell you love that job of yours. Admit it.” “Maybe I don’t, but it doesn’t mean I hate it, either.” “But you’re so much better than that place. You’re the most creative person I know.” “I’m creative at work.“ “Don’t talk nonsense. You should be out partying into the early hours with me, drinking until morning, heading to a meeting on a few hours’ sleep, and painting and writing masterpieces. Not going to bed at ten and waking up at six.” “That’s your idea of fun?” “Jesus, Aus. We’re twenty-two, not forty-two. Seriously, you should head into work tomorrow, quit your job and come work with me. Who the hell gets a job like yours straight after uni, anyway?” “Just like that, huh?” “Well, what you should do is quit your job, come work with me, break up with B, and allow me to introduce you to the wonders of bachelorhood. I guarantee I’d get you laid by an army of girls. You’d never go six weeks without sex again.” I laugh as I grab our empty glasses. “Drink?” “Hold on,” he says. “I’m serious about the job. You’re the most chilled and content person I know, and I love you for it, but I see it in your eyes. That spark isn’t there anymore, and so long as you submit to the daily grind of corporate bullshit, it’ll never return.” “Thanks for the motivational talk.“ “You know what I mean.” He points his pipe at me. “You know. You know that I know. When was the last time you wrote something? Or painted? Or drew for the love of it?” “It doesn’t matter. You said so yourself, we’re young. This is my first job, and all I care about is saving up enough money so I can move in with B. We have a plan, and I know you don’t understand it, but it’s the only one that makes sense to us.” Forcing the old, chewed up pipe between his teeth, he sighs. “Be careful, that’s all I’m saying. That world you enter every day is the exact existence we’ve fought all these years. You’re the best person I know, and the most talented by far. You’re wasted doing whatever it is you do each day, and I’m sure B would agree.” I smile. “Same again?” “Fine. Avoid the issue, but mark my words, you’ll regret it. You and B both will.” “When I get back, let’s talk about that gig. Okay?” Mumbling to himself, he digs his phone out of his pocket and lights up its screen. I walk to the bar and lean on its smooth wooden top as Harriet rushes from one side of it to the other. I catch myself in the long mirror half-hidden behind bottles of whisky and rum and more, Joey’s slouched form hovering just beyond me. “How have we lasted all these years?” I say under my breath. “You say something, Aus?” asks Harriet. “No, sorry. Just wondering what a Joey-less life would look like.” She laughs, sliding her brown fringe to one side. “You should try it sometime. It’s rather good.” Reaching for the empty glasses, she places them in the sink behind her and wipes the bar-top clean. Her small guitar tattoo lies half-hidden under her black vest, one of a few tattoos she owns, but the only one the majority get to see. For years she’s teased Joey about the others, leaving him yearning to know what they look like and where they are on her body. I’ve known her since primary school, but she still makes me feel small and child-like. I figured she’d give in to Joey’s advances at some point, and she nearly did when we were fifteen, but she never kissed him; refused to remain in a room alone with him. He tells me everything, especially the intimate moments in his life I don’t wish to know, but when it comes to Harriet he holds back, just like he does about his mother. “You after another round?” she asks. “Yeah, same again, please.” “I have to say, Aus,” she continues, placing a glass under the pump that’s taller than her. “I struggle to figure out how the two of you have lasted so long. When it comes to that boy…well, people don’t tend to stick around.” “He’s not so bad. He keeps things interesting.” “Is that what we’re calling it?” I pick up a beer mat and scratch the sides. “You know, I could say the same about you. I’m surprised you never gave in to him.” She laughs, tilting the glass before straightening it again. “Never going to happen. He’s a little boy, Aussie.” “He isn’t so bad. You know that deep down.” Placing one full glass on the bar, she lifts another to the pump. “I do. The trouble is, he doesn’t. I’m sure one day he’ll grow up, but let’s face it, we’ll all be long gone by the time he does.” “Come on, you make him sound—“ “He’s hurt too many of my friends. Come talk to me when you’ve comforted him all night after someone broke his heart.” “I’m afraid I already have,” I sigh. She tilts the glass again, levelling it off and perfecting yet another pint. “Yeah. I guess you have.” She exhales deep and places both palms on the bar. “We all have a past, Aus. It doesn’t permit us to hurt who we wish. You’re a good guy, and he’s lucky to have a friend like you, but…” She trails off. “I know what you’re saying. I do.” She smiles. “Keep him out of trouble in the meantime.” “Thanks for the drinks,” I say, placing some change on the bar. “Have a good night, Aus.” “You too, Harriet. You too.” MAY 7TH - THE RUSH HOUR TRAIN: Growing up, I brimmed with excitement at the mere idea of trains. I pleaded with my mother and father to take me everywhere on them, and although a bus and car, and even a plane, were exciting in their own right, nothing came close to the rumble and tumble of an old rickety locomotive. Somewhere along the line of life, this excitement dwindled. Where I once crept close to the edge of the platform so the ‘whoosh’ of air smacked me in my face, I now groan as the trail of out-of-date carriages approach. Maybe some of the passion would return if it wasn’t for one rush hour journey after another. In the morning I’m surrounded by tired folk with a full day ahead of them; in the evening, shoulder-to-shoulder with life-sapped humans already dreading tomorrow’s repetition. But right now I should feel somewhat blessed, as I managed to struggle my way through the hustle and bustle of bags and arms into a spongy seat far older than me. In theory, an hour-long commute like this should be fantastic, as it guarantees me two hours each day to plug in music and lose myself within a book. My parents never owned a TV, so I read more books by the age of twelve than I imagine most do in a lifetime. Music and reading and general daydreaming is all I knew as an early teen, but tests, studies and university temptations stole both time and fiction. For now I have Alan Moore to keep me company once again, and the sounds of The Pixies and the songs I grew up with. But it’s hard to lose myself when so many people surround me, all these breaths, smells and sighs crammed into a carriage. I drift towards peace for a few seconds, but soon realise my arm touches a strange man, and that a women sleeps mere feet away, drool dripping from her mouth. In theory, it’s great, but in reality, it’s a daily reminder about how uncomfortable and anxious other people make me. “Is that a comic book?” asks the pair of legs hovering inches from my head. I look up to put a face to the voice, its harsh tone louder than Black Francis. “Excuse me?” I say, removing my black earphones. “That. What you’re reading. Is it a comic book?” asks the middle-aged man in a plain grey suit. “Kind of. It’s a graphic novel,” I reply, fidgeting in my seat. “Don’t you think you’re a little old to read comic books?” I swallow a breath and look at my shoes, unsure how to respond. “Well, it’s a graphic novel, so…” “What’s the difference?” “I…well…” I stutter, folding the corner of the page into a triangle. “It’s longer, and more mature, and…a novel, I guess.” “It looks like a comic book to me, son,” he says, goosebumps forming over my skin as his flat tone reminds me of terrifying teachers from my past. I scratch my fingers and flick my thumbs, looking to the window in the hope Sowerby Bridge is near. No such luck. “Do you have a job?” he asks. I nod, still unsure of myself. “Which is?” “I’m. A. Graphic. Designer,” I say, looking at my shoes again. “I see. We have a few graphic designers, too.” I glance to the window, anxiety twisting up from my stomach. “Okay.” “So,” he says, leaning on my head rest. “Is it any good? Maybe my son would like it.” “Very good, yes,” I whisper. “What’s it called?” I close the book and hold it up to him. “V For Vendetta,” he says, moving his face to within an inch of it. “Well, I’ll let my son know, although if you want my advice, I’d start reading something more appropriate.” Digging my nails into my palm, I hold my breath. I sense my cheeks heating and eyes widening, like they used to at school when teachers put me on the spot. Even if I knew the answer I’d freeze, eventually spitting out some nonsensical sentence. “The Watchmen graphic novel sold over one million copies in 2008 alone,” I blurt, my lungs emptying in an instant as I push my book into my backpack. “What are you talking about?” he says. “It’s a graphic novel.” “What is?” “Watchmen.” “So?” “Well, it sold over one million copies in a year. They’re popular.” He purses his lips and narrows his stare. “Okay. I’ll be sure to tell my son about that one, too.” I stand up and divert my eyes, scuttling down the aisle as the train begins to slow. Reaching into my satchel, I pull out a small, white bottle that houses pills designed for such moments. Sliding through the carriage door, I slip into the cooler, more spacious area of the train where the toilets, bikes and buggies reside. I place the pill on my tongue and breathe, my skin cooling and sweat retreating. I remember the moment the doctor first placed these in my hands: a daily pill to balance my emotions, and another set for when I sense a panic attack near. “Does this mean I’m crazy?” I asked my father when we returned home. “Of course not, son. They help you calm down and not feel as you did last week,” he said, stroking my cheek with his palm. “Lots of people take medicine like this. Even your mother does from time to time.” “Really?” “Of course. Nobody likes large crowds, and some people - like you and your mother - need a little help to calm down. So long as you take one of these each morning,” he said, pointing to the larger box. “And one of these whenever you feel as you did last week at the festival, you’ll be fine. Can you do that for me?” Nodding, I recalled the previous week when my chest and lungs nearly exploded, all those people…all those noises…all those feet and arms and heads. Twelve years-old, and all of a sudden, a new daily task sandwiched between brushing my teeth and dressing myself. “It’s okay,” I mumble, a tad light-headed and dizzy. “It’s over.” I take a few more deep breaths and lean against the train’s door. “Jesus, what the hell was that all about?” I mutter under my breath. As the train slows and stutters to a stop, I consider yesterday’s journey home, and how stepping out into the cool spring evening isn’t nearly as pleasurable now. The sun’s lower, already below the big building in front. Searching the car park, I see the familiar car and the girl inside who makes times like these better. “You won’t believe what just happened,” I say, opening the door and dropping into the seat. Her smell hits me in an instant, the mixture of floral body wash and coconut shampoo, soothing. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, already my angst melting away. “This weird middle-aged man grilled me about reading graphic novels. It wasn’t pleasant,” I sigh. “Hello, you,” she says, leaning over the gearstick and inviting me in for a kiss. “Sorry,” I say, obliging her request. “Hi.” “And what’s this about a middle-aged man?” “The most surreal and uncomfortable train journey of my life. He started grilling me about reading comics, and how I’m too old, and asked me what I do for a job, and…” I picture his sullen face and shiver. “I have no idea how it all came about. I’m sure I was just sitting there, minding my own business.” Laughing, she strokes my forearm. “Oh sweetie, that’s not good. Did the old man bully you?” I pout and nod, enjoying the picturesque view as the sun creeps out from behind a few trees and illuminates her face. Shadows draw across her defined cheekbones, highlighting her eye-lined eyes more than usual. I presume Joey’s right, and that I shouldn’t be so helpless before a girl I’ve known so long, seen so naked, and know so much about, but even now, after nearly a decade of longing, I discover new insights, angles and kinks. She, too, makes me anxious, but in a different, and far more wonderful, manner. “I can picture you now,” she says, returning her hand to the wheel. “Let me guess, you blurted out some random fact about comics?” “You think you know me so well, don’t you?” “Did you?” She smiles. I sigh. Laughing, she strokes my upper arm between her long fingers. “I knew it.” I flick on the radio, attempting to ignore her smile, and her eyes - the way these two features join forces with one another, working in harmony as she laughs and teases me. I used to write short stories in her honour whilst bored at school. Each time I’d try to describe her, the feelings she rumbled within me, and the way each piece of her face joined to form a perfect puzzle. I always stumbled into an obstacle, never able to finish. A word that doesn’t exist. A sentence that never did her justice. “Are you okay, though? You don’t feel an attack coming on, do you?” she asks. “No, I’m fine. Just weird, that’s all. Anyway, let’s change the subject. How’s your day been?” I reply, the sun hiding once more behind houses and trees. She changes the station just in time to catch the end of The Last Living Boy in New York. “Pretty damn good,” she says, slapping my thigh with her fingers. “I checked my Etsy account earlier, and so far today I’ve sold three dresses, two blouses, two bags, and four belts.” She faces me, sticking her tongue out of the corner of her mouth. “It’s the sunshine. People love to shop and spend money when it’s sunny.” “Look at you,” I say, placing my hand on her bare thigh. “It’s starting to pay off. You’ve worked so hard since uni finished.” Sliding my hand further up her leg, I slide my fingers under her dark blue dress. I may have written about her face during my teenage years, but it’s her legs I fantasised over. One of my favourite classes as a fourteen-year-old was maths; it coinciding with when B ran cross-country. Arriving early so I could position myself next to the window, I’d spy and daydream the entire time, waiting for her to run past and provide me with ten seconds of lust. The fastest girl in our year by far, she ran as if searching for something hidden, forcing her long legs wider and wider, pushing off her toes and tensing each muscle in her calves and thighs. She never saw me staring. She always kept her focus on the path in front, glaring at some invisible goal just out of her reach. I used to wonder what she ran towards; what went through her mind whilst she escaped into her own little world. She continues to run whenever she gets the chance, keeping her firm, tense legs in shape. The few times I’ve seen her, she maintains that same intensity; the same longing for what exists just out of her grasp. “So, what else happened today?” I ask, gliding my fingers up and down her firm legs. Hesitating and squinting, she looks at me and wrinkles her nose before returning her gaze back to the road. “Nothing much.” “You sure?” “Yeah. A lovely sunny day, that’s all.” After escaping one rush hour imprisonment, the road only provides more torture. I love living in Sowerby Bridge, surrounded by green hillsides and high climbing trees, but detest driving through it as workers from all directions trudge along. “So, does this mean you’re buying dinner tonight with your new found riches?” I ask, curling my right leg up on the seat. Blowing her bangs and stray curls from her face, she sighs. “I was hoping we could go home and cuddle up in front of an old movie.” “I thought we were having dinner tonight?” “I know, but I’m tired after my run. Plus, wouldn’t you prefer to sit in the garden? A glass of wine in hand, a little Feist playing in the background… Enjoying the final few moments of sunlight before we head inside and celebrate?” Grabbing my upper arm, she squeezes it and raises her eyebrows. “But if you really want to go for dinner…” “No, no, if a quiet night is what you want, a quiet night is what you’ll get.” I smile and interlock my fingers around hers. “You better feed me, though. I’m a hungry boy.” “Actually,” she says, leaning her head on the side of the seat. “I was hoping you’d make your famous veggie burgers. I’ve been thinking about them all day.” “I see you’ve planned this,” I say, laughing. “Maybe…” “This celebration of ours better be worthwhile.” “It will. Don’t you worry.” Resting my head on the chair, I stare out of the window as the sun continues its descent. Still light, but hazy as the clouds lighten to a cooler tone. Evenings like these always remind me of midsummer; Joey, B, and me lazing in Hyde Park after a day of uni, wasting away the hours as guys kicked footballs and girls lounged in next-to-nothing. Joey and me in thin shirts with rolled up sleeves, and B in a low cut top that showcased the top of the birthmark above her left breast; shaped like a summer cloud, the type you draw as a child. It’s strange to think those carefree days are over, after so many years of school summer holidays and easy-going university. Waking up at the same time, catching the same train, and rinsing and repeating throughout the seasons; evenings spent in the garden drinking wine are soon to be the exception, not the rule. I spent what seems like a lifetime imagining adulthood and everything it may hold. It seemed so fantastical, but now it’s here it feels normal and so everyday. The park may be replaced by a living room, and quirky studios with a rather boring desk, but I continue to waste away the hours with B, chit-chatting until we submit to sleep. I’m not sure if my younger self would agree, but I sense my younger self didn’t know what he wanted, anyway. MAY 10TH - THE GREATEST VINTAGE SHOP KNOWN TO MAN: I can’t recall the last time I bought new clothing. Barring underwear and socks, my wardrobe offers an exclusive range of old, tatty, ancient attire. It all began here, in this random vintage shop in Leeds. I remember the day Joey and I found it, catching the train without telling anyone and spending the afternoon exploring without the constraints of adult supervision. “Just wait until we tell everyone on Monday,” he said, holding his arms in the air and arching his head towards the sky. “I love Leeds,” he yelled, laughing and running down the street. Eleven years-old and oblivious to the dangers or consequence, we ventured down streets never before visited, and into shops we’d read about in music magazines. Then, for some reason I cannot recall, I said, “Should we try this place?” Entering through its bright blue doors, a huge space opened up, flush with shirts, trousers, bags, and every colour imaginable. Where the shops our parents took us to had shiny new railings, this haven presented industrial scaffolding, catering trolleys stacked with jeans, and an eclectic range of rusty fixtures holding bags, shoes, and random memorabilia. Most shops play chart music and mainstream nonsense, but this hidden gem played classic rock, early punk, and songs we’d never come across before. “I’m in love,” Joey said, looking up to the ceiling. “We’ve found it. We’ve found the greatest place on Earth.” Little has changed over the years. Despite spending more time in here than is probably healthy, I’ve only met the owner on a handful of occasions, but it’s always clear when he stops by, adding a random picture or lamp to the already crazy offering of this and that. Still, it seems to mature with age, its wear and tear providing further mystique. We’ve all tried to get a job here at some point, but the owner only hires girls. It was a surprise to nobody when B got one, and what started as a summer job soon developed into a five-year love affair with fashion, hipster customers, and easy-going afternoons. I think it’s here her desire to craft her own creations began. She’d return home with a sparkle in her eye, eager to draw and sketch and mishmash pieces of clothing she’d held that day. Sitting at her desk, she honed in on her notebook, steely-eyed in the same vein as when she runs. Hours ticked by as she drew; I wrote. We spent entire evenings silent, but said more than enough through what we crafted. “When did this jumper come in?” I ask, holding the dark green fabric to the light and peering through the hole in the elbow. “A couple of days ago,” B says, folding a pair of yellow chinos and sliding them into a bag. “I thought you might like that one,” she continues, passing the brown paper bag to a girl who looks familiar, but at the same time, just like so many girls who wander the streets of Leeds. “Have a good time at the party tomorrow, Steph. Let me know how it goes.” “Will do,” says Steph, the girl I may or may not know. “And save me one of those bags you made, okay? Such a cute design.” Backing out of the shop door with a large smile and swinging bag, the familiar stranger leaves B and me alone. I struggle with names, and I’m not much better with faces, but it doesn’t help having a girlfriend who knows every single student in Leeds, and almost the entire town of Halifax. I’ve never understood how she has the energy to entertain so much small talk. “Steph is lovely, don’t you think?” she says, stepping from behind the counter. “I don’t understand why she’s single.” “Don’t even ask,” I say, placing the green jumper back on the rail. “I didn’t say anything.” “You don’t have to. If it were up to you, you’d set up every single girl you know with one of my friends. The thing is, I only have one real friend, and his name is Joey. Do you really want Beth to go out with Joey?” “Steph. Her name is Steph,” she says, smoothing down the green jumper I’ve apparently disturbed. “And you have lots of friends.” As she hands me a purple top with a pocket on its left breast, I smile. “No, you have lots of friends. I just have vague memories of people I may or may not have met.” Blowing her bangs away from her face, she wraps her arms around my neck and kisses me on the nose. “How is it someone who remembers so much crap can’t recall a name or face? And I don’t want to set up everyone I know, just nice girls like Steph.” “You only like her because she wants to buy one of your cute bags.” “Shut up,” she says, digging her fingernails into the back of my neck. “That’s just a bonus.” Winking and backing away, she leans on an old trolley stacked with t-shirts. She blows upward once more, displacing her fringe and the curly strands that frame her face. For one year we shared an arts class at school, and even though we were already an item, I couldn’t help but stare at her for the entire hour. It was usually the one class I excelled in, but not that year. I sense few notice, but barely a conversation goes by where she doesn’t huff at her fringe. A subtle quirk, but one I can’t help but notice when she concentrates on a design or a particular task in hand; her huffing and puffing intensifying the deeper she slips into her world. “You’ll come across plenty of pretty girls,” said my father once, showering me with advice like he often does. “But don’t allow a pretty face to fool you,” he continued, as he taught me how to play The Velvet Underground’s Pale Blue Eyes on the guitar. “Would you like to know how I knew your mother was the one? It’s when I noticed her annoying little habits. At some point in every relationship, you notice little things that drive you insane. Fingernail biting, or knuckle cracking, or certain words and phrases…everyone has silly quirks, and most drive you mad. “One day, I noticed how your mother snorts when she laughs. I couldn’t believe how I’d missed it for so long, because all of a sudden it was all I could hear. The thing is, it didn’t annoy me. I loved it. I found myself listening for it, and trying to make her laugh so I could catch her doing it. “That’s when you know you’re head-over-heels-stupid-in-love, son. One day you’ll meet her, and when she reveals her flaws, you’ll long for them.” He strummed his guitar without removing his gaze from me. “I can’t tell you when that girl will come along, but when she does, never let go.” I grew up surrounded by my parent’s love, a strange fixation in contrast to Joey’s world, and B’s own fatherless void. I suppose I never thought much about it before that day, but I remember my father’s face, and his genuine happiness as he spoke about my mother’s flaws. In that moment, I yearned for it. I wanted to feel what he felt, and to understand the real act of loving another. I suppose I’m foolish to assume I have it with B, because what do I have to compare it to? But I’ve always noticed her. I’ve forever seen inside her. I love what’s on the surface like so many other people do, but I adore what’s beneath. I need it. Even now, after all these years, I search for new quirks and traits that others won’t. That others experience but don’t consider for a second. “I have something to tell you,” she says, picking up a t-shirt and rolling it up into a ball. “I wanted to tell you the other day, but…” “Sure,” I say, glancing at her sullen face. Looking at her fidgeting hands, she bites her lip and closes her eyes. Knees wobbling, I tense my fists, an inner unease working its way up from the tips of my toes. Stomach churning and breath short, I transform from a peaceful state to a nervous wreck in an instant. Unblinking, I stare at her and search for clues, both on her face and in my own mind. What did I do? What did she do? I take a deep breath, and then another, my chest frantic and panicked and aching already. “Sure,” I say again. “We can talk. Should we go for coffee or get some food?” I continue, removing a shirt from the rail and moving it further down the line. “We’ll actually be early, because the average time people eat dinner these days is seven-thirty-seven, which is pretty late when you think about it, right? I always think of five o’clock as the average dinner-time, or maybe six. But close to eight o’clock seems crazy, but I suppose that’s the time we eat most days. I mean, how often do we get around to it before then—“ “It’s not that kind of talk, Aus. Don’t worry,” she interrupts. “Sorry, I should have eased you in better than that. Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?” Taking another deep breath, I walk over and grab her shaking hand. “It’s fine. I’m fine. You’re fine, right? I mean, you can tell me if something isn’t fine—“ “I’m pregnant,” she forces out, her entire body moving forward as she says it. “I’m pregnant, Aus. You’re going to be a daddy.” Frozen, I stare as her face settles and returns to the state I’m so used to seeing: peaceful, beautiful, in control. I’ve imagined this moment so many times, but never did I think it would feel like this. I pictured romantic holidays and sunset beaches, a romantic trip to a favourite restaurant, announcing and pronouncing something wonderful as the final coffee arrives. I imagined asking B to marry me, her smile as she said yes. I pictured my own smile the moment she would say, ‘You’re going to be a daddy, Aus.’ I’ve written about this moment. I’ve laid in bed whilst she slept next to me, excited to spend my life with her; ecstatic to build our life together. I’ve daydreamed and fantasised and mused over so many special moments, and each time they centred around love and happiness and a perfect feeling of ease. It never involved a dirty vintage shop. I never felt like this, cold, shaken and queasy to the core. The future me has life figured out. He has a career he’s passionate about. He has purpose and knows what he wants; he doesn’t dwell on yesterday and wonder about tomorrow. He lives in the moment, because the present is perfect. “Are you going to say something?” she asks, balling another t-shirt in her hands. Swallowing a breath, I attempt to smile. “Thirty years-old,” I stammer, mouth dry, lips quaking. “Sorry?” “That’s the average age a woman gets pregnant in the UK.” I pause, unsure why I said this. Unsure why I know it. Unsure why I’m allowed to speak at all. “It actually hit thirty for the first time last year…” I say, tailing off and folding my arms. Puffing her cheeks, she breaks into a laugh, wrapping her arms around my neck and pushing her head into my shoulder. “That’s good to know, sweetie. That’s good to know.” “Wait, I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry.” “It’s okay,” she whispers into my ear. “What I mean is…” I consider this, unsure what it is I actually mean. “Well…how long have you known? I mean, are you sure? Are you okay? Is…” I remove her from my chest and look at her tummy. “What does this mean?” Smiling, she holds my shaking hands and squeezes them shut. “It means you’re going to be a daddy, sweetie. An amazing one.” Moving her left palm to my cheek, her warmth soothes me and melts my skin. “I’ve known for about a week. Well, I suspected about a week ago. I didn’t know for sure until I went to the doctors the other day.” “And everything is okay?” I ask, keeping my gaze on her stomach. “Everything is fine. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I wanted to, but…I guess I panicked. I’m sorry.” “No, don’t be sorry. It’s fine. I’m sorry for reacting like…that.” “You did better than I thought you would,” she says, kissing my cheek. I sigh and twist on the spot, stepping towards the railing and running my hand through the wall of colourful t-shirts. “What are you thinking?” she asks. “That this is all a bit of a shock. We use protection, so we’re supposed to be…well, protected from this.” I close my eyes and shake my head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it to come out like that.” “It’s okay. It came as a shock to me too.” “But not now?” “It’s still a shock.” “Then why do you look calm and perfect, whereas I look like…well, I dread to think what I look like.” “You look fine.” “You’re such a bad liar.” “I think you’ll find I’m a very good liar, mister.” Smiling, she steps towards me and rubs her palm up and down my near-numb arm. “I’ve had a few days to think about this, so I’m in a better place about it now.” I shake my head again. “I’m sorry you’ve had to do this on your own,” I say, wrapping my arms around her and hugging her close. “I should have been at the doctors with you. I’m here now, though. I am. I promise.” “I know you are.” “We’re going to be okay.” “I know.” “Yeah, we’re going to be okay,” I say trailing off. “We are, right?” “Of course we will. It’s not like we’re the first people to get pregnant.” “This is true. Jesus, why are you always so calm?” I huff. “I’m the one who’s pro-kids, not you.” “I’m not anti-kids,” she says, peeling her chest off mine. “You are a little.” “I am not. I’ve just never gotten all gooey-eyed over them. I will over this one,” she says, cupping her firm and flat tummy, the same one I kissed last night, oblivious to the fact a human rested inside it. A human I helped create. “So, what do we do?” I ask. “What do you mean?” “Don’t we have to get a scan or buy you a breast pump or something?” “We don’t have to buy anything for a while,” she says, chuckling to herself. “And we do need to arrange a scan, but not for a few weeks. We don’t have to do much of anything right now, other than get our heads around it, which I think is more than enough, don’t you?” “I guess,” I say, sitting on the same trolley she did a few moments ago, before the course of our lives changed forever. “Have you told anyone else?” “Not yet.” “Should we?” “I guess. I don’t think we’re supposed to tell many people, but we need to tell my mum, and your parents, and…well, I suppose we should tell Joseph.” “Dear God, do we have to?” “We probably should.” “He’ll have a heart attack.” “Maybe.” “You’ve always wanted to kill him.” “Maybe.” She smiles. “But not now. For a few days we need to figure things out together, okay?” I nod. Lunging forwards, she wraps her arms around me once more, a somewhat haunting silence falling around us. I feel each beat of my heart shudder through my chest and up through my ears, my head light and heavy all at once. Queasy and tense, I tighten my grip around her back, but each move shoots pain up my neck and across my shoulders. A few minutes ago we were two barely-adults with all the time in the world to figure out each other, ourselves, and the point of living a life of somewhat importance. Now I’m a father, a purpose placed before me without permission or warning. I’ve dreamt of this moment so many times before, and so many others like it. It never felt like this. I never felt like this. Click Here to see a specially designed piece of artwork that accompanies you on this journey. Artwork 2 of 5 - - - - Designed by Robert Cate MAY 12TH - THE PUB: The last forty-eight hours reminds me of playing football at school. Or should I say, the day after an intense match in summer. I ache all over, my legs and arms throb with tension. My chest hurts, as though my lungs and heart have been called into battle. I’m tender and tired and bruised, the act of sitting a conscious and difficult ordeal. I never enjoyed football. I only played because Joey insisted, and the sad thing is he hated it more than me. That’s the problem when you’re good at something. You’re often left without a choice, and in Joey’s case, our sports teacher, Mr Wood, insisted, pleaded, and threatened our best player to play. I, on the other hand, never showed anything above mere competence. Running around and falling over all too often, I watched as Joey weaved in and out of defenders before slotting the ball into the net. Cheers and hugs and whoops and whistles, Joey meeting them all with a shrug and smirk. “Thank God,” he said, after a cup final a few years ago. “Let’s get to the band room and practice.” He draped his arm over me as I dripped in sweat. He scored four goals that afternoon and couldn’t care less. I doubt he remembers that game, although I do, because I feel the same now as I did the day after that brutal match. Ever since B shared our news, my stomach’s danced a dance it can’t quite keep up to. I’m two steps behind each thought, thinking about B, and then telling my parents, and then money and houses and how the hell we’ll cope. Before I grasp one, another fret tumbles forward and attacks my chest with another blow. “You should have seen her, brother,” Joey says, leaning over the small pub table and grasping my wrist. “She was filthy gorgeous.” “Huh?” I say, bringing my attention back to the present. I’ve sat across from him for over ten minutes, and he hasn’t stopped talking once. “The girl. From last night.” He rolls his eyes, lifting his pint to his lips. “Haven’t you been listening?” “Oh, no. I mean, yeah. The girl you met last night.” He laughs and twists his pipe between his fingers. “What’s wrong with you today? You sick?” “No, I’m fine.” “You don’t look it.” “Cheers.” “Well, you don’t. You look like you haven’t slept in days.” I rub my neck and work my hand over my face, recalling my mirror-induced shock earlier this morning. Sleeping becomes tough when your insides dance all night, but it’s even harder to come by when the girl you love rests peacefully to your left. For an entire hour I watched her, dumfounded by her relaxed state. “How are you so calm?” I whispered, unsure whether I was annoyed at her peace or my own panic. “Are you awake?” I said, testing her resolve. Not a peep. Not a sound. Not so much a twitch of the nose. Despite being surrounded by covers, and her legs and arms, I’ve never felt so alone in my life. I don’t think I drifted off once, and as soon as the alarm clock beeped, I rushed to the bathroom and met a stranger staring back. A somewhat familiar stranger who shared some of my appearance, but in the same instance, none. He had my chestnut eyes, but an eerie string of red lightning strikes surrounded them. My usually thin and nonchalant eyebrows jutted out in several directions, assumingly from the non-stop tossing and turning. The skin around my eyes hangs in a haunting manner, all dark, blotchy and cracked. My eyes are normally my one saving grace on a face sporting goofy smiles and a big bulky nose. Shaking my head, I hopped into the shower, hoping water would cleanse me, and although it did - easing my woes and haggard appearance - there’s only so much magic it can muster. “Fine,” Joey says, clenching his pipe between his teeth. “Don’t you want to know what we got up to? Or should I say, what she did to me?” “What who did to you?” I ask, my stomach churning further. “Last night’s filthy gorgeous minx.” “Absolutely not.“ “Yeah you do. Trust me.” “Doesn’t she have a name?” “Of course she does. It’s Jenna, or Sammie, or Gabrielle, or…I don’t know. Who cares? All that matters is her kinky ways.” I sigh, incapable of listening to his seedy affairs. I struggle at the best of times, but present woes considered, I stand no chance. “There I was, minding my own business behind the DJ booth, loading the next song and readying myself for an onslaught of bass, when this leggy blonde saunters over. ‘I like your tattoos,’ she said, eyeing me up and down, and I swear to Bob Dylan himself, she undressed me with her stare.” Placing his pipe on the table, he takes a deep breath. “Finally, after all these years, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of perversion. I have no idea why women dislike it so much, because I bloody loved it.” “That’s great, Joey. Congratulations.“ “Oh no, that’s merely the beginning, brother. After she ogled me, she leaned closer and curled her hair,” he says, stroking an imaginable mane. “‘What does this one say?’ she asked, referring to my Frank Zappa quote, and ‘what does this one mean?’ she said, touching my split-in-two rocking chair.” Pointing at various sections of his arms, he continues to talk and laugh and smirk, although my wayward attention is far too nomadic to focus. I know the story behind each tattoo, even present for most artistic sessions. I like to think I helped along the way, designing his apple tree and dove, and helping decide which Donovan lyric to use. I sometimes look at his ink-filled arms and laugh how it all began. A rebellious act of defiance, with a cartoon sketch of Bugs Bunny of all things. He never has been able to explain why he chose Bugs, although I sense it has some sort of meaning behind it. “And when she got me downstairs in the old coat room, she fingered my hair like a horny hare, and bit my shoulder until it bled.” He undoes his top two shirt buttons and slides the fabric to one side. “Look at it! Look at what the crazy nympho did to me. I tell you, I’ve had some freaky nights before, but nothing like this.” “Joey, this is great, but can we talk about—“ “No, no, I’m not done yet. Because as kinky as she was at the club, her true colours showed as soon as I took her back to my place. ‘Oh wow, I love your big apartment,’ she said, staring at my crotch. ‘This view is to die for,’ she whispered, tearing my shirt open. Not unbuttoning it, oh no. Ripping them off.” He laughs and bites his pipe. “I swear, everything that came out of her mouth was a sexual innuendo. I barely said anything all night, pinching myself, assuming I was in a porno or being set up by one of the guys at the club.” “Joey—“ “And then the craziness began: on top, underneath, from behind, on the floor, against the wall, upside down, hanging over the bed, food, shots…and I barely did a thing the whole damn time.” “Joey.” “I’ve never been so tender in my life. That crazy nymphomaniac ripped me to shreds.” “Come on, Joey. Jesus!” “And then, best of all, she left on her own accord,” he says, looking past me and into the distance. “When I woke up, she was gone.” He snaps his stare to me. “It was the best damn night of my life.” I sigh and pinch the bridge of my nose. “Please, can we talk about something else?” “Oh come on, Aus,” he huffs, picking up a beer mat and throwing it at my chest. “Here I am, telling you about the greatest night of my life, and you look suicidal. What? Didn’t my story have enough missionary positions or cuddles?” “Shut up.” “I bet you love missionary, don’t you? I bet that’s all you and B do. I can picture it now. ‘Yes Aus, just like that. Lay on top of me like a salmon,’” he says with a soft tone. “‘Oh, I love how you’re so gentle and careful with your hands.’” I glare at him. Because I hate him. “‘Oh B, I love how you just lay there like a dead giraffe,’” he says, mimicking me now, I assume. “‘Why, I think I may write a letter about how I feel about this. I love you so much, and our medicare, and our uninspiring nights together.’” I hate him, but instead of punching him like I should, I laugh and throw a beer mat at his head. I miss. “Even you find your life pitiful and hilarious,” he says, laughing. I sigh. “Shut up.” “You love my stories.” “No. No, I do not. And besides, B and me get up to a lot in the bedroom.” “Pray tell.” “It stays there. Not all of us feel the need to share our seedy lives.” “How could I keep a night like that to myself?” “Silence is easy, Joey.” He smirks and places his pipe back into his mouth, leaning back and motioning his head towards the door. “Well, I suppose we can ask the woman herself how adventurous you are.” With my back turned to the door, I can’t see her, and for once I don’t turn round to watch her glide in my direction. Picking up the nearest beermat, I twiddle it between my thumbs and pick at each corner. I wouldn’t say chatting to Joey has helped me to forget or relax, but for the first time in a few days my chest doesn’t throb and ache. But now, as each second brings her closer, my chest tightens once more. Thick breath and heavy shoulders. Knotted neck and lead-like arms. I can’t avoid seeing her, nor can I delay telling Joey or my parents, or the world, for much longer. I keep telling myself this is real, and that this isn’t some test or dream. But avoidance, like procrastination, seems to ease the agony for a little while longer, even it is mere respite. I need respite. I need a few more minutes…a few more hours…a few more days and weeks to figure out how the hell I’m so supposed to be a father and someone stronger than who I actually am. “How are my two favourite boys?” she asks over my shoulder. “How are you doing?” she continues in a softer tone, kissing me just below my ear. “I’m fine,” I whimper, and as soon as I catch her face I close my eyes and slip deeper into my heavy heart. I hate feeling like this towards her. I’m angry at my cowardice. I’m frustrated because I long for her, and when I do see her…smell her…touch her…I’m head over heels in love with her. She remains my girl. She’s still my B. Yet I feel like I’ve lost part of her, or part of me, maybe. Last night, I tried to write down my feelings like I always have. I wanted to write her a letter and express that which my lips could not. I can’t recall a single time I’ve met a blank page when writing to her. The words usually spill from me. The chaos within, whatever it may be, eases. Last night…I couldn’t write. I couldn’t calm the mess. “What are you two talking about?” she asks. Perfect. Calm. No different to the last time we all sat at a table together, before everything changed forever. “Well, Aus was telling me how you love the missionary position.” She bites her lip and looks at me. “That’s not exactly how the conversation went,” I say. “I may have filled in some of the blanks,” Joey says. “But that’s the gist.” “He had rather disturbing sex last night.” “Say no more,” she says, holding up her hands. “Seriously, if you two become any more prudish, I may hire prostitutes to surprise you throughout the week. Maybe they could teach you something,” he says, standing up. Scooting closer to me, B grabs my hand. “Wait, sit down for a second,” she instructs Joey. “But I need a drink.” “You can get one in a minute. We have something to tell you first.” “Now?” I ask, literally feeling the blood drain from my cheeks. Squeezing my hand, she nods. I remember before our first big gig in Leeds, at the Cockpit, before a hundred-or-so strangers, she calmed me. I knew once I got on the stage I’d be okay, because as soon as I strum and focus on the music instead of the bright lights and judging eyes, I slip into a comfortable and safe place. But this gig wasn’t like the ones before it, and I couldn’t calm. I couldn’t settle. As Joey bounced around the room, and the rest of the guys lounged on couches, I tore beer bottle labels and sketched in my notebook like an out-of-control lunatic. Without saying a word, she grabbed me, framed my face with her long and pristine fingers, and gazed at me with those rich, succulent eyes. She didn’t speak. She didn’t hug me. She just smiled and stared, but it’s all I needed because the world began to slow, as did my heart and breath, and nothing else mattered or even existed. Me and her, void of the chaos and noise; I found peace and stepped on stage, playing like I always play, and losing myself in the music like I always do. Like some mysterious elixir, she soothes my inner turmoil at times I think are impossible. She rarely makes a sound, simply stares and smiles. Her eyes, and those lips, and the way she strokes me with her fingertips…I don’t know how she does it but she always has. I hope she always will, because I’m not sure how I’d handle life without her magic. “Oh God, you two aren’t getting married are you?” Joey asks, sitting and planting his head in his hands. I take a deep breath and lock my eyes on hers, nodding and gritting my teeth. “Not exactly,” B says. I want to do this. He’s my friend. It’s my responsibility to tell him and accept all this is real. I want to be strong. I want to be brave. I need to do this, but I can’t move my jaw. Dry lips and trembling throat, I can’t do it. I’m weak. I’m afraid. “Okay, you two are freaking me out. What’s up?” he says, slicking his dirty blonde hair back and to the side. B squeezes my hand once more. “There’s no easy way to say this, as I’m pretty sure you’ll freak out regardless, so I’ll just come out and say it. We’re pregnant.” Mouth agape and shoulders slumped, Joey falls silent. A rarity in its own right, each ticking second intensifies the moment, his wide-open mouth an eerie clearing in his bearded forest. “You okay?” B asks, taking his hand with her spare one. He remains still. “You’re pregnant?” She nods. “Is this true?” he asks, turning to me. “Yeah,” I whisper. “So, in a few months you’re going to be parents?” “Yes, Joseph,” B says. “But…how?” “I’m almost certain you know the answer to that,” she says. “But…we’re twenty-two years-old. We’re too young to be parents.” “You’re not the father, Joseph. Don’t worry.” “Well, I know that, but…I don’t think we’re ready for this.” “Again,” she says, “you’re not the father.” Straightening up, he brushes down his grey waistcoat. “Well, I think I kind of am.” Shaking her head, she sighs. “Aus,” he says. “You’re going to be a dad?” “Yes, mate,” I whisper, folding my beer mat in half. “Is this a good thing?” I freeze, sensing another hue from my already pale cheeks slip into oblivion. I’m not sure I’ve hated the sight of his face as much as this before. How can he ask me a question like that? Why the hell would he feel it’s a good question to ask right now? It’s an impossible question with no goddamn answer. “Is this a good thing?” I ask him in return, digging my fingers into my thigh. He nods. “Yeah. You’re happy about this?” Widening my eyes, I imagine lunging over the table and pulling his head off his shoulders. Am I happy? What sort of bloody question is that? “Look,” B says, sighing. “This has obviously come as a shock to both of us, but we’re managing and figuring things out. And this one,” she continues, tilting her head to me. “Is doing…okay.” “Okay?” says Joey. “So, not happy, then?” “Goddamn it, Joey,” I hiss. “What I mean to say is,” B sighs. “It hasn’t settled in yet. We’ve only just found out. You’re the first person we’ve told, which means, Joseph, you can’t say anything to anyone.” Lowering her tone but adding more purpose to each syllable, she leans towards him. “If you do, I’ll kill you.” “You’ll kill me? I should kill you, getting pregnant. Aren’t you supposed to be on the pill or something?” “I am, but sometimes life has a habit of happening.” “Or ending, in this case.” “Damn it, Joey,” I sigh. “It’s okay, sweetie,” she says, stroking my arm. “He’ll get used to it, and in the meantime, won’t say anything to anyone. Isn’t that right?” “What?” he says. “You won’t tell anyone. Say it, Joseph. Say you won’t tell anyone.” “Like I would. If it was up to me you’d take a trip to the hospital and never tell anyone, ever.” Tightening her grip around my arm, B glares at him but doesn’t say a word. “Okay,” he says. “Sorry. I won’t. I promise.” Slumping in his chair, he looks at me with a blank, lifeless expression. I wonder if this is how I looked the moment B told me. I wonder if I looked so helpless and useless and pitiful. This feels like the morning after a heavy night of drinking. My stomach swishes in circles, queasy and tender and oh-so fragile. I shouldn’t feel physically sick, but I do. Maybe I should be scared to an extent, but to feel like this, and to act like this, and to look like Joey looks now, the moment B shared the greatest news a man can hear… I’ve wanted B for as long as I can remember, and everything that comes with a life shared with another. That includes a baby and a house, and moments that define who we are. I want to be happy. I need to be happy. I’ll soon be a father, and not only that, get to figure it out alongside the girl I love. This is life. This is the life I’ve forever imagined. There’s so much time to figure it out, and like all hangovers do, this one will soon end too. MAY 27TH - MY PARENTS DINNER TABLE: Telling Joey seemed to release a valve of sorts, the last two weeks a surprising period of deep sleeps and stress-free days. I’m not sure why, but I don’t sit at my desk dwelling about the pitfalls and worries ahead, rather focus on my daily tasks in hand. I’ve regained a part of myself, returning home excited to see B as she tells me how big our little bundle is, and about a new book I should read because it’ll prepare me for nappy-changing and baby-bathing and how to cradle them to sleep. “I will read them,” I said last night, as she placed yet another book on top of my ever-growing stack. “But there’s no rush, is there?” “No,” she said, cocking her head. “Although, it’ll arrive quicker than you think, mister. Just make sure you read a few of them, okay?” she continued, lifting my arm and wrapping it around her. “Speaking of books, when are you going to clutter your own room with them?” “Not before we tell my parents,” I said, caressing tiny circles into her palm. “Can you imagine my mum’s face if she found them on my bed?” “That’s why we need to tell them.” “We will.” “You’ve been saying that for two weeks.” “I know, but there’s no rush.” “Aus,” she said, twisting from my hold. “We have to tell them.” “I know, but—“ Placing her index finger over my mouth, she shook her head. “Okay,” I sighed. “We’ll do it tomorrow, at dinner.” Panic returned after that, an anxious beat haunting my chest, although the tossing and turning of a restless night never arrived. It’s strange to compare my sleep now to that of a few weeks ago, as I’m sure I should feel just as much panic. I suppose I do in many ways, but it’s hard to determine how much. It comes and goes rather than lingering all day long. I know I’m scared. I’m sure I’ve yet to come to terms with this. I can’t call whatever this is ‘excitement’, but it isn’t dread, either. It’s something, and it’s a much better something than the turmoil I felt when B first told me. “Can you pass the carrots, please?” I ask my father, inhaling the smell of boiled vegetables and slow-cooked lamb. When I woke, I suspected the day would drag, as I obsessed over my mother’s face and my father’s tone. For some reason it didn’t, just another normal day. Within minutes my parents will know. They’ll know that they’re to become grandparents, that their lives are to change ahead of schedule. “Thanks,” I say, as he guides the bowl into my hands. Holding it above the table, the light glimmers from my father’s silver hair, his rolled up sleeve skimming the top of the mashed potatoes. “No problem, Dyl,” he says, glancing between B and me. “So, what have you two got planned for the evening?” I look at her and exhale, sensing any plans may alter once we share our news. “Not much,” I say, stabbing a forkful of veg and raising it to my mouth. “What are you reading at the moment?” he continues. “Did you get the book I recommended?” interrupts Mum, adding to Dad’s sentence, as if they share the same voice. Growing up, each school year seemed to begin with one of my classmate’s going through a divorce. After a while it became so normal I assumed my own parents would split up, often imagining how I’d take it and what I’d say. As time ticked on their bond grew tighter. I used to hate seeing them kiss and hug and laugh with one another, because it wasn’t normal. Arguments were normal. Distance and apathy. Warped by Joey’s wariness towards love and relying on others, I prepared for the inevitable: that people leave, that love isn’t real, that relationships run their course. I think Joey took solace from coming to my house and seeing my parents, but he never trusted it. I can’t blame him, because who would after watching their mother leave so young? We used to swap stories about the books we read at bedtime, my father reading to me, his mother reading to him. One night she read to him like she always had, the next, she didn’t, because she was gone. I admired him so much, I knew he must be right, that the inevitable would come between my parents, but meeting B changed this. Even before we became an item I longed for her company and trust, sensing peace when she was around. I knew life with her would be easier than not, so as Joey grew older and more bitter, I lost myself in books and poems that romanticised the gooey, screwy, silly kind of love that couldn’t possibly exist, yet must, as it did between my parents. If it could happen for them, maybe it could happen to B and me. “I did,” I say, savouring the array of fresh tastes revitalising my tongue. “It was good.” “What book?” asks Dad. “The Night Circus,” says Mum. “I knew he’d love it.” “Is that the one you told me about?” he says, motioning his lamb-filled fork towards her. “One of the many I’ve suggested. Maybe one day you’ll listen.” He smiles. “Maybe. Maybe.” Clearing his mouth, he points his fork at B. “Do you give Dyl a hard time like his mother does me?” “Sure do,” says B, glancing at me. “He’s just like his dad, so needs a little guidance.” “Charming,” he says, B replying with a wink, continuing her never-ending flirtation with my father. “He looks just like Richard Gere,” she used to say. “That grey hair…my oh my…” This all seems normal, like any other meal. I keep forgetting a little person grows within her, not just now, but throughout the day. We’re two barely-adults figuring life out, but it’s fine because we have an entire lifetime to discover who we are. Then I do remember the tiny little person growing in her tummy, not just someone I’ll soon have to care for, but a real person made up of parts from me and parts from B. This isn’t a normal meal, because I’ll soon change my parents’ lives forever. I drift off, losing focus of what I’m doing and drop my fork, the clatter of metal on pottery ringing around the table. “You okay?” asks my father, eyeing my plate. My mother stares as B smiles, holding back a laugh, no doubt reading the thoughts bombarding my brain. “Yeah,” I say. “You sure? You look a tad lost.” Glancing to B, she holds my hand; helping me and guiding me like she always does. “It’s okay,” she whispers. “What’s wrong?” says my mum, placing her knife and fork down and edging her chair closer to the table. “What’s happened?” “It’s fine. Nothing’s happened,” I say. “Well…” I look away from my mother because all I foresee is her face after Joey and me flooded the girls’ bathroom when we were ten; sitting in the head teacher’s office whilst he ran through our wrong-doings. Not angry, but disappointed, an empty stare that seemed to suggest I lost part of my mother that day. She’s terrible at hiding her emotions, and I can’t stand the thought of letting her down again. “We have some pretty big news,” I say to my father. Hesitating, and looking to my plate of half-eaten vegetables and lamb, I sigh. “B’s pregnant.” Two words sneak through my lips, a near whisper I’m certain they both hear as loud as a shout. B squeezes my hand and places her other on my thigh, and I know she looks at me in the hope I’ll lift my head, but I can’t. All I see is my mother’s face as we left the school that afternoon, her silence enough to shame me as she pursed her lips and remained a few feet in front. “I see,” says my father, breaking the silence. Slow. Calm. In control. “Well, that is big news. I suppose it shouldn’t be a huge surprise, though, considering the two of you have been together forever. Still, it’s big.” Taking a drink of water, I raise my chin and focus on his own. “But a baby’s a blessing, and I’m glad you told us.” He turns his attention to B. “How do you feel?” “I’m good. Thank you.” She tightens her grip, edging closer to my chair. “It’s still a shock, but we’re adjusting.” I nod because I’m unsure of what else to do or say. I’m the idiotic, frightened boy from two weeks ago, trembling from B’s news, but this time it isn’t our baby that shakes my insides, rather the do-or-don’t temptation to sneak a glance at my mother. I know she loves the idea of being a grandma, as I’m sure most mothers do. But not now. Not today. She’ll adjust and come around, but I know she shares my fear because I’m sure it’s from her I get it. A carefree soul who drifts without worry until her anxieties and worries decide to drown her in the moment. Like I drown. Like I’m drowning right now, scared to face my mother’s disappointment. “You okay, dear?” asks my father, facing my mother and taking her hand. I follow her arm up to her face, unable to fight the curiosity consuming me. I used to lose myself in her long flowing hair. A memory of me twisting her auburn locks in my fingers pops into my head, sitting on her lap as she reads fairytales from the same book her mother read to her. Another glimmer of yesteryear, the sun shining through her hair, lightening its tone; we’re on some beach holiday, maybe, or enjoying a particular sunny Yorkshire afternoon as we sit in the garden together. There’s this one picture in the hallway; a young twenty-something version of my mother back in Austin, ‘hippified’, in a tie-dye shirt and flowing skirt. It’s taken by my father, although it’s hard to decipher how they found one another; he, an English writer obsessed with Bob Dylan, decked in tweed and sensible sweater-vests; she, a carefree American from an unmarried beatnik couple, a professional wanderer and full time daydreamer. So beautiful, and my father, so normal and predictable, just like me. She’s older now, and a tad more plump with a lived-in appearance, but that hair remains the same now as in the picture. It’s still auburn. Still flowy and wavy and a perfect state of messy. It’s still the first thing she grabs when worried or disappointed, or anxious in some way. Just like in the school office all those years ago. Just like now. Nodding, she remains silent, no doubt tackling her thoughts and worries that I’m sure replicate my own. A cobbled-together boy made up of my father’s bland appearance and my mother’s crippling, merciless anxiety. Where I mutter random facts, she curls her hair; we’re both unable to hide our emotion, disappointment and fears when they decide to uproot our foundations. “I’m not sure what to say,” she replies, her tone soft. “But your father’s right. A baby is a blessing. Even when they come as a surprise.” Continuing to curl her hair in tiny circles, she attempts a smile. But I know she’s forcing it, like I no doubt did when B needed me the most. As I slump under the weight of her disappointment, I’m angry at her but mainly at myself, because this was me as I gaped at B. Pretending. Forcing. Too selfish and scared to see past it. I turn my attention back to my father, her pale and lifeless face too much to handle. “Thanks,” I mutter. “I know this must be a shock, and I’m sorry—“ “Stop right there, son,” he says, standing up and straightening the blue tie hiding beneath his sweater. “We have a lot to talk about.” He pauses, and looks at B. “All four of us. As a family. But right now, let’s toast to our future grandchild.” He guides my mother to get up and join him. She looks at the table for a few seconds before nodding, forcing and fighting through a smile, a smile borne from fear and worry, like my own has these last few days. My father and B, so strong and brave. My mother and me, so timid and weak. I know she’ll adjust. I know I will, too. Soon this will feel normal, and meals like these will be normal once again. People like my mother and me find strength in those stronger around us. I just need time. She just needs time. My father’s right, there’s much to discuss, but not now. There are plenty of books to read and details to learn, but not now. I stand and join my parents, holding B’s hand whilst she remains seated. I glance down to her, staring at the plates and dishes and glasses on the table, a soft smile spread across her lips. “I think that’s a good idea,” she says, joining us and lifting her glass. “Cheers,” says my father. “Cheers,” I say. “Cheers,” says my mother softly. Then the room settles into silence. JUNE 3RD - THE COFFEE SHOP: The rich aroma of coffee saunters around the table and drifts up my nose. Inhaling a deep breath, I savour every bit of caffeine-tainted air possible, its strong aftertaste clinging to my throat. Opposite me, in an old comfy chair that droops nearly to the floor, B cups her mug of hot chocolate and pouts. “I miss coffee,” she says, sipping from her cup and sliding it on to the table. “It smells so good.” I hesitate, holding my own mug inches from my lips, its taste practically on my tongue. “Should I get something else?” “No,” she sighs, settling back into her favourite chair. “There’s no reason for us both to suffer.” “Sure?” She nods. “Thank God,” I say, going past the point of no return and licking the stray coffee drops from my lips. Coffee’s caffeine no longer affects me, my unrequited love occurring at too young of an age. Where Joey dreamed of pubs and sneaking into bars, I longed for coffee shops and dark corners where I could write and draw. My mind couldn’t comprehend Dylan Thomas sat in a bar with his notebook before him. Or Hemingway. Or Kerouac. Alcoholics, the lot of them, but all my imagination conjured was an artisan coffee shop, a petite cup of espresso, and darkened walls adorned with wonderful paintings. My addiction and fixation towards the dark stuff becomes more apparent each day. It highlights another reason why pregnancy fails to appeal. After all, who wants to double in size, be unable to sit down without the help of others, or push a football-sized object out of their nether regions? The thought of no coffee for months on end? No, I couldn’t do it, and I feel for B, because she, too, loves coffee, but not in the same vein as me. “How on earth will you cope working here?” I say, breathing in the fresh, bitter smell of ground beans. She sighs again, pushing her hot chocolate further across our ankle-height table. “I don’t want to think about it. I may have to quit.” “You can’t quit this place. You love it here.” “You love it here,” she says, reaching above her head and removing a book from one of the many bookshelves dotted around the room. “You could take over my shifts and fulfil your dream job.” “I wouldn’t want to ruin the mystique,” I say. “What mystique?” she laughs. “This place is too small to have mystique.” “Are you kidding?” I say, motioning my hands from our table to the cobbled-together counter a few feet to my right. “A place like this defines romance, with its antique, individual tables, some too small, others too big; and the way the lighting is never quite right: too bright on a sunny afternoon, too dim in the evening with lamps older than the both of us; and how the bookshelves don’t match, nor the cups or plates or the candles.” I continue, my hands dancing along with my words. “You don’t decide to create something like this, it evolves. If I was to work here, I’d lose that intrigue, just like you have. Remember, you once loved this place as much as I do. More so, even.” “Nobody loves this place like you,” she says, leaning on her knees. The room’s shadows cast half her face in darkness, whilst the sun screaming through the window illuminates the rest. “You used to,” I say, brushing a stray strand of hair away from her cheek. “You think you know me so well, don’t you?” “I do know you so well. There’s nothing about you I don’t know.” “Is that so?” I nod. “Well, I’m afraid I have bad news for you, mister, because every girl has secrets.” “Even from me?” “Especially from you.” She winks. “I see. Well, at least I have coffee.” “Cruel.” Crossing my right leg over my left thigh, I smile. “You know, you won’t be able to keep it a secret from these guys for long,” I say, angling my eyes towards the counter. “Are you saying I’m getting fat?” “No. I think your coffee-less diet will give you away long before your body does.” “I hadn’t thought about that.” She bites her lip. “I guess we better tell everybody soon.” “Yeah, I guess so,” I say, recalling the night at my parents’. After the initial shock settled, the rest of the evening, and indeed the days since, passed without incident. Talking about B’s symptoms, and listening to my father share stories of when I was in the womb, we laughed and smiled and celebrated like a family. Although the time will come to create plans and discuss money and birthing processes, it wasn’t then. Regardless, my mother remained quieter than usual, her eyes unable to hide her worry. I think my father sensed this, for he barely shut up all night. “When your mother first told me she was pregnant, I was listening to Beast of Burden by the Stones. I’ve never been able to listen to that song the same way,” he said. “I remember our first trip to the doctor, and how nervous I was. I just knew they were going to find an extra finger or thumb,” he continued, sharing one story after another. “The moment I first saw you…” he trailed off, smiling and kissing my mother’s cheek. “You two will be great parents.” As a fresh batch of beans rumble inside the coffee grinder, I watch B observe the world outside. A woman passes with her hands full of hemp bags, a man manoeuvring out of her way, a newspaper under his arm and tweed jacket draped over his shoulder; a group of teenagers across the street, peering into the bookshop window; the sun bright and tempting, passing into the coffee shop and bathing the room in a multitude of long-reaching shadows. “How do you feel?” I ask B, her attention still outside. I hate how this place has become just another coffee shop to her. We used to come here every Sunday, chatting and kissing and lounging in the same chairs we sit in now. The long shifts of endless latte-making, serving the same people each time; the staff, who once begin here, never seem to leave; the cramped and hot kitchen; and the haggard furniture I see as beautiful, yet sense she finds tacky…it stole the magic. Where we once stared out of the window together, imagining the stories of each passer-by, she now looks with longing, as though she’s desperate to escape. It’s the same look she wears when she runs, intent and reaching for something she can’t wrap her fingers round. “Pretty good,” she says. “I was only sick once this morning, so I think the worst of it might be over.” “That’s great. Just the hormones to look forward to now.” “Of course. And the cravings. And late night bathroom breaks. And generally making your life miserable.” “Oh, yes, we can’t forget the last one.” “Don’t worry, I won’t.” I lift my coffee to my nose and savour the smell. “Stop it,” she says, laughing. “It’s your job to be nice to me.” “Is that so?” “Absolutely. Why else do you think I’m keeping you around?” “I don’t know. Love, maybe?” She huffs. “Don’t be crazy. Love has nothing to do with pregnancy.” She winks once again. “How about you? How are you feeling?” “I’m fine,” I say, and although I feel as though I should be manic with panic, I am fine. A strange, peaceful, somewhat apathetic fine. “How about last night’s chat with Joey?” she asks, tilting her mug of hot chocolate. Picturing his hunched over figure and slouched shoulders, I smile. “Interesting. It’s as if he’s the one who got you pregnant.” “Jesus. Can you imagine that boy suffer through parenthood?” “Not really.” She laughs, shaking her head and sipping her drink. Each conversation with him starts the same way of late: You’re ruining our lives…we’re too young for all this…how could you do this to us…as though it’s the two of us awaiting fatherhood. “Brother,” he spat last night, pushing his near-empty pint glass from one hand to the other. “You’ve allowed your potent man-potion to create life, and, in doing so, end your own.” “Do you have to refer to it as man-potion?” “Yes. And I don’t understand how you’re so calm. I’m freaking out, which means you should be, too.” “I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I said. “But nothing has changed. I mean, how different can life be?” “What the hell is wrong with you? Everything has changed. Have you figured out where you’ll live yet?” “No.” “What about nappies and milk, and what to do if a baby shits on a vinyl record? Do you know how to clean shit off of a vinyl record?” “I don’t think anybody—” “And the hospital…what does she do when she gets there?” “I’m not sure—” “Will you have to help pull the baby out with your own hands?” “Of course not. Do you even know how—“ “And B’s going to change. I tolerate that girl at the minute, but what about when she starts crying for no reason? Have you thought about that?” “Not really.“ “Damn it, Aus. Why are you so calm?” “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I am being calm as such, because there’s lots of time to figure everything out. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t need them all now. Besides, this is still me and B. Did I imagine we’d be parents at twenty-two? No. But have I pictured the two of us having kids together? Of course. “She’s my everything, Joe. I’m a better person around her, and having a baby with her, and starting a family…what could be better? In the big scheme of things, what more could I ask for?” “But…but…the nappies and the insomnia, and the fact you’re having a goddamn baby?” As I shrugged, he threw his arms in the air and sulked to the toilet; the rest of the night a continuous vent as Joey’s speech grew slurred. “I won’t lie,” I say to B. “I find it quite amusing.” “What? The fact your best friend is losing his mind?” “Yeah.” “Well, I suppose someone has to,” she says, taking a deep breath and looking around the room. “What does that mean?” “Well, not that I’m complaining, but you’re rather calm at the moment. I think it’s safe to assume we all thought you’d panic a little more.” “And who is all of us?” I ask, narrowing my stare. “Me. Joseph. Our parents. Anyone who knows you…” “I’m sorry to disappoint. Would you rather me act like a nervous wreck? “No. But I am a little worried.” “Why? I’m fine.” “Are you?” “Yes.” “Aus—“ “What? Do I not look fine?” I say, a tad louder than I planned. “It sounds like you’re complaining.” “Well, I’m not. I’m just worried you’re bottling everything up and pretending this isn’t…” “Isn’t what? Real? Because I’m aware this is real. I know what’s happening.” “I know you do, but—“ “But what?” I say, straightening up and pursing my lips. “Hey, don’t be like that. We need to keep talking, and at the moment you’re not doing a great deal of it.” “I’m talking.“ “Ausdylan, I love you, but you’re not. I know you, and I know what that mind of yours is like, and what you’re doing is bottling things up and pretending there isn’t a problem.” “So, our baby’s a problem now?” “You know that isn’t what I mean,” she says, glaring at me. “And since when do you sulk like this? Have you turned into Joey all of a sudden?” I move to speak, but bite my lip instead. “It’s okay to be scared and freak out. Pushing things down isn’t going to help anyone, let alone this little baby. We’re in this together, so I want you to know you can talk to me.” “I know I can.“ “Then talk. And if you can’t talk to me, talk to Joseph or your dad. And before you say there’s plenty of time, it’s ticking. This is happening, and soon things will get real, real fast. Pushing it down and bottling up isn’t healthy, especially for you. But you know this already, Aus.” I sigh. All of a sudden I’m tired; exhausted, even. Forehead heavy, shoulders and neck tense, I long to lie down and close my eyes, yet the woman I love entices me in and keeps my stare on her with her gentle, calming smile. “Okay. And I know. I know everyone expects me to panic and not deal with this, and if I’m honest, I don’t get why I’m calm, either. I wake up each day expecting to feel scared and anxious, but the truth is, I’m okay.” I slide forward, reaching for her hand. “I have my moments. Just this morning I stood in the shower and wondered how you clean a baby. I have no idea, so I panic and it feels like my chest will explode. But then it goes. I know there’s time to figure everything out, and that I have you and my mum and dad. That panicking right now won’t do anyone any good, least of all me. So, for the most part, I feel fine. And I know this may sound strange, but I feel normal. Life feels normal. In a way, it feels like this is how it should be.” Biting her top lip, she looks towards my coffee and slips both her hands within my grasp. “Do you know why I didn’t tell you about being pregnant straightaway?” “You said you needed time. I understand that.“ “In a way, but mainly because so long as I kept it to myself, it wasn’t real. I took the first test and assumed it must be wrong. There’s no way I could be pregnant, because we’re careful, and young, and nowhere near ready for something so big. So I took a second test, and assumed that was wrong too. “I didn’t panic. I didn’t particularly worry or lose sleep. I knew it was wrong. I knew. I knew there wasn’t a baby inside me, so I didn’t tell you because it wasn’t real, and it remained a mistaken fantasy until I went to the doctors and he told me to my face that it was. “Even then I didn’t believe it. I remember shaking my head and smiling, but as he continued to talk, everything around me blurred, and I must have looked sick because he rushed for a bedpan and pushed it in front of me. In an instant it was real, and I was so scared about telling you. About telling anyone. “I woke up the next morning sick to the stomach, and barely ate or drank all day. I thought my skin was going to crawl off me, and I couldn’t imagine it ever getting easier. But that night I slept a little. I ate a little. I remained scared, but I knew I had to tell you because you’d be there for me. We’d be there for each other. “And part of me feels bad for not telling you sooner, but I guess I needed to deny everything for a while, because this is a big deal. Whatever we tell ourselves, life’s no longer the same. So, if you need to do what you need to do, fine. I won’t push you. I won’t force you. But I want you to know I’m here for you, and that we’ll get through this together.” Forehead heavier, shoulders and neck even more tense, I nod. “Okay,” I whisper. “Okay.” “I don’t mean to put you on the spot—“ “It’s fine. You aren’t. I know what you mean, and deep down I know I’m avoiding something…everything. I guess I’m just scared about letting you down.“ “Aus, you could never—“ “How do you know? Let’s face it, I’m not the best when it comes to this kind of thing. The way I reacted when you first told me…” I sigh. “I felt useless.” “Don’t be silly, it was a huge shock.” “I know, but still. I imagined that moment so many times in the past, and it was supposed to be a happy one - one of those memories we could tell our kids. I want to be strong for you…for us. At the minute I don’t feel as useless. I think, ‘Maybe I can do this. Maybe I’ll be fine.’” I shake my head. “I don’t know. The truth is, I have no idea what I think or feel. I’m sorry.” “Don’t be,” she says, squeezing my hands tighter. “We’re in this together, and I want you to do whatever it is you need to do. So long as you know I’m here for you, and that Joseph and your parents are too. I know Joseph’s useless, but that boy will do anything for you. Don’t feel like you have to do this on your own.” She rests her forehead on mine. “I know you’ll be a great father. That’s all that matters.” “You think?” “I know.” I kiss her cheek and bundle her face into my chest, hugging her tightly and devouring as much of her strength as I can. We’ve spent so many moments in this coffee shop; intimate moments, normal moments, first moments, quiet moments, enough everyday moments to last us a lifetime. But yesterday’s moments are no longer the same as tomorrow’s. Life’s different now, and I must accept this. Being blind from bliss isn’t brave. To be brave is to be human, and to be human is to feel. I don’t feel brave yet, but I have many feelings. I suppose allowing them to breathe is a step in the right direction. JUNE 20TH - THE PUB: "I had a dream last night," I say, as I slump forwards onto the table, a folded beer mat scrunched in my hand. "I ate the baby." Coughing and spluttering, Joey loses some of his beer as it dribbles down his beard. "Come again?" "I ate him. Or her. I don't know, the sex of the baby wasn't clear. But I ate it." "You ate your baby?" "Yes." "Why?" Pushing myself up, I glare at him. "How should I know? It was a dream. All I know is, I couldn’t get back to sleep, and must have stared at her stomach for a good two hours. "Sorry," I kept whispering. "Sorry I ate you, baby."" Mouth open, and with a stare that looks beyond me, he lifts his pint glass to his lips. "That can't be normal," he says, wiping his mouth. "That isn't a maternal thing to dream about." "Paternal." "What?" "I'm the father. It's paternal, not maternal." "Whatever, brother," he sighs, grabbing the beer mat out of my hand. "Whatever you call it, you aren't supposed to eat your baby." "I know," I say, resting my forehead on the table. "It wasn't a real baby, though." "What do you mean?" "It wasn't a baby with arms and legs, rather the baby inside B's stomach right now." "As in the foetus?" I lift my head and nod. "Jesus." "I know," I whine. "I read the other day that it's five centimetres long. That's not even as wide as your phone." Throwing my hand out in front, I motion towards his matte black obsession. "And he, or she, weighs less than a Babybel." "The cheese?" "Yep," I say, eyes closed tighter and tighter so no light can creep in. "Wow, that's so small. I mean, it's weird, isn't it? When you consider it, the idea of conception makes no sense at all. How does something so small grow into something big? How does it develop speech and eyes and teeth? I mean, teeth are weird at the best of times, but when you think about how they're created from your man-potion, whilst your penis is in a vagina... And hair. Hair is strange." "Stop." "Soon, that little boy or girl will have your eyes or smile, or, God help us, your nose." "Stop, Joey," I plead. "I know. I'd be upset, too. Have you seen your nose?" I grit my teeth. "Can't you see I'm in pain? "Sorry," he says, laughing. "I'm kidding. Kind of. I mean, your nose is rather—“ "Joey!" "Sorry." I straighten up and man-handle another beer mat, folding the corners and tearing off strips. "What am I going to do?" "What do you mean?" he says, draining his pint and sliding the empty glass towards me. "How can I do this? How can I be a father? We're not ready to be fathers." "You're damn right about that." "So? What are we going to do?" "We?" he asks. "I love you like a brother, brother, but this is your baby. Not mine." "You're going to let me suffer on my own? Is that how this goes?" "When it comes to a baby? Yes." "You're a terrible friend.” "Whoa there," he says, placing both his palms on the table. "First of all, let's not say things we can't take back. Second, it's your round." "What am I going to do?" I sigh, slumping back in my chair. “I’m twenty-two, for crying out loud. I know nothing about fatherhood. Have you seen what I'm like around kids? Do you remember when my cousin gave me hers to hold?" "I do. It was awful," he says, nudging his empty glass closer to me. I recall the awkward afternoon last year, still able to see little Jordan's fearful eyes. He knew I didn't know what to do. He sensed my fear, and cried and struggled in my arms. "It's okay, just take him off me," I said to my aunt. "You're doing fine. Just hush in his ear and rock him from side to side," she said. I wasn't fine then, and I'm not fine now. I won't be fine in seven months time either. How can I be? How can someone learn to be a father? You're either ready or you're not, and I'm not. Not now. Not anytime soon. "That poor baby knew I didn't have a clue," I say, rubbing my forehead and stretching my neck. I look at Joey and notice his pipe: in and out of his mouth, on the table, and then in his hands. "What if I'm like that with my own child?" I continue. "You won't be," he says, clenching the pipe between his teeth. "It's different when it's your own." "How do you know?" "Because...that's what people say." "Which people?" Beer mat back in hand, I drop tiny shreds on the table. "Loads of people. They say, 'It's different when it's your own. You don't mind the shit or sick, or the fact they keep you up all night. It's different.'" "And you believe them?" Looking to the ceiling, he shakes his head. "Nope." "Exactly," I say, running my fingers through my curly hair, which is longer than usual and in need of attention. "It's nonsense. You know when you're ready, and I'm not ready." "How do you know you're not ready?" "Look at me," I say a little too loud, finger still caught in my hair. "Do I look ready?" "You're doing okay. I mean, you were doing okay, until…" "Until what? Until I realised this is real? That I'm a father? That soon, a little boy or girl will rely on me for everything? Not just some things, Joey. Everything. Is that what you mean?" He looks to the ceiling again. "Yes." "That's right. I was fine, when I hid from the truth, but now, as I face it, I'm far from fine. I'll never be fine again. Never." "It's...it's just hormones," he stutters. "That's women, Joey. The guy doesn't go through that." "Well, maybe you're a hermaphrodite." "A hermaphrodite? Really?" He shrugs. Torn between anger, despair, and a complete meltdown, I laugh. A manic laugh. An out of control laugh that ensures the table to our left, surrounded by two middle-aged women, gawk at us. The kind of laugh that fizzles out into a half-cry. A pathetic and desperate reply to your best friend accusing you of being half man, half woman. Silence descends over us, although the rumble of footfall and clinking of glasses continues. "Hey. You okay?" I shake my head as a spiking sensation prickles the corners of my eyes. "She's perfect." "Who is?" "B. She's perfect, and on top of everything, and I'm useless. Utterly, hopelessly, useless." "Brother, she isn't perfect, and although I agree you're kind of useless, you've been so good through all of this." "No, I haven't." "You have. You've been calm, and I know B appreciates it. She loves you, and you love her. I mean, if you had to go through this with anyone, wouldn't you want it to be with her?" I nod. “It’s more real each day. Every morning I wake up knowing we're a day closer to picking baby wallpaper, and choosing names, and finding a real house we can one day call home. I wake up on the verge of dying, whereas B lies next to me, perfect. She's strong and calm and at peace, and worse of all, she's being strong for me. How unfair is that? How useless am I, a soon-to-be father who places more stress and worry on to the woman he loves and got pregnant?" He flashes his stupid grin at me. "For starters, you're not useless. Trust me, you're doing fine. Second, when it comes to B, you're blind to everything but her perfection. That girl struggles, too, she just hides it well." "No, you're wrong. Last night we lay in bed, reading like we always do. It's our peaceful time when we don't need to talk or think or do anything whatsoever. We just sit, read and relax. "It's when we read the same book and race each other, seeing who can finish first. It's where we read To Kill a Mockingbird and On the Road, and the letters we write to each other. It's peaceful and easy, and it's a place I love, because I just watch her and enjoy her and take her all in. "But last night was different, like all the other nights of late. She read a baby book, and so did I. With her damn red pen in one hand, she made notes and drew circles and prepared for our baby's arrival. She did it without a care in the world, biting the tip of her tongue like she always does when reading. "All I could do was look at her whilst she smiled and nodded, turning to my own page every now and again and re-reading the same paragraph over-and-over. She must have ready fifty pages, whereas I suffered through three. And when I turned off the light she slipped into an instant sleep, whereas I once again watched her. “The people we were are already gone. Life's already changed, because how can we regain what we had? We can't go back to being a couple who reads novels before bed, enjoying music and each other's silence. We used to stay up into the middle of the night, but in a few months we'll have early morning bottles to attend to, and late night cries. We won't have time for literature, because we'll be swarmed by toddler books and 'how-to' books, and shitty parenting books that contradict one another and make me feel like an even greater failure. "I know I shouldn't be afraid of losing something as stupid as a bedtime ritual, but I am. I’m scared of losing us and who we are, and I'm not ready to become who we need to be." Light-headed and out of breath, I sway from side-to-side. "Brother," Joey says with a deep breath. "I know what you're saying, but the truth is, we're always evolving. Each day we move on and lose part of who we were. Are you the same person now as you were at fifteen...or seventeen...or last year? We all have to let go of the past and focus on who we are today. "At the end of the day, I'm still Joey. You're still Aus. Your circumstances may differ, and your outlook on life, and your desires and all that crap, but it doesn't stop you from being you. B will still be B. I'll still be me." "That's easy for you to say," I sigh, rubbing my temples. "You're still the same person you were ten years ago." He smiles, pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. "Don't blame me because I’m awesome.” He winks before lunging across the table. “But seriously, I grow. I mature. I’m changing each and every day, the only difference being I don’t allow someone else to dictate who I become. “Been there and done that. It doesn’t mean I don’t grow or change. Take the other night, when I met this band from Finland. They blew me away. Their music, and the way they thought, and the places they’ve been to…I fell in love. Some of their songs…” He pauses, laughing to himself. “Like nothing I’ve heard in my life. I wouldn’t let them leave. I had to keep talking and listening to their stories. “When I did get home, I couldn’t sleep. All I wanted to do was write and play and create something amazing. That single night, with those four guys from Finland, changed me. I think differently now, but I’m still me. I remain Joey. “Everything you’re going through at the moment doesn’t stop you from being Aus, but you’re bound to change and evolve. You’ll grow with or without a baby, and so will B. You can try and cling on to what you had yesterday, but all that matters is who you are today, and who you’ll become tomorrow. Embrace it, brother. Love it. “Trust me, I spent too long clinging to the past and wondering what life would be like if she stayed. I would play out all these different scenarios in my head, but all it did was leave me questioning myself and hating who I was. I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t. “I grow, Aus. I refuse to hold my future self at the mercy of someone else. You do, which is fine, because you love her and trust her and would do anything for her, but that isn’t the issue here. “The issue is your crazy obsession towards her perfection, but it isn’t true. Did you hear yourself describe her? She isn't an angel, Aus. You think that girl doesn't worry? You think she's on top of all this?" "She is—“ "Bullshit. This is why you're killing yourself. You refuse to let go of who you both were whilst building some ridiculous standard that doesn’t - and never has - existed. She worries. Believe me, she worries. Just because she places them to one side when you suffer doesn't mean she's immune to it." "Joey—“ "Shut up," he says, cutting me off. "I remember studying with her one time after school, whilst she helped me with maths because I goddamn hate maths, which, by the way, I was right about, because to this day I've never used algebra in the real world. Anyway, she came to mine and helped me through each question. Each stupid formula. I panicked and stressed, but she remained calm throughout, just like the B you described. "After a few hours of slaving away I asked her, 'What you doing later?’ "'Helping Aus with his English exam,’ she said. "And I laughed, because when it comes to English you need no help. But then I remembered she had an exam of her own... "'Don't you have a Chemistry exam in the morning?' I asked. She nodded. "'Don't you think you should prep for that, rather than help Aus with an exam he'll ace anyway?' "She shook her head. 'I can tell he's nervous.' “That girl places her own worries to one side to ensure you make it through yours. Just like you place your own dreams and wants and future to one side, in order to build a life around her. I don’t understand it, but it’s admirable, I suppose. The point is, just because she acts all brave and tough and fine, doesn’t mean she is. It doesn't mean she isn't freaking out." I pick up another beer mat and fold it in half. "I remember that exam," I say. "She told me she was prepared for it." “Do you remember her grade?" "Yeah. Her worst one." Saluting me with his pipe, he nods. "Exactly. You two have something I can’t understand, but it's always been there. I guess it’s love, or something. You protect each other in your own crazy little way, and although admirable and arguably adorable, it makes you both bloody idiots.” I sigh. “It doesn’t feel like I’m putting our life first at the minute. It feels like I’m only thinking about myself.” “No way. It’s always about you and B. Always has. It used to be about you and me, but she took my place a long time ago. The problem is, you’re trying to live up to some ridiculous perfection that doesn’t exist, and now a baby’s in the picture, it’s made it all the more impossible.” “But I should be stronger for her. For us.” “You are. You’re the bravest guy I know. The manner in which you sacrifice your own needs and dreams so you can make her happy, it gives a guy like me hope that maybe one day I’ll feel that. I don’t think it’ll be anytime soon, but one day…maybe.” “I’m not sure, Joe.“ “I am,” he says. “When it comes to that girl, you’ll always step up. Until you do, she’ll be there for you. It doesn’t mean she’s perfect or without fear. It doesn’t mean she won’t freak out somewhere along the way, but she’s got your back just like you have hers. “Another thing, I think it’s good you’re starting to realise how scary and crazy this whole ordeal is. You’re supposed to be scared, you idiot. But trust me, you’ve got this. Deep down, I think you know this already.” He trails off, bringing our two empty glasses together. "Okay," I say, clearing my throat. "You're right. And I guess it's my round, isn't it?" "You're damn right it is. You finally sensed my desire for drink down my throat." "Yeah. Subtle as always, Joe." He laughs, pushing the glasses to me and tapping his pipe against the table. "You know, there is another option." "Yeah? What's that?" "We go to the airport right now. Catch a flight to New Orleans. Rent a car and travel America. We leave these lives and start fresh. Imagine, Aussie, imagine the freedom and the sights and the memories we'd create and forget about all at once. Just like On The Road. I'd be..." "Dean Moriarty," I say. "Yes!" He slams his palm on the table. "And you'd be...” "Sal Paradise." "Yes. Yes. Picture the girls we could sleep with, the hearts we could break, the irresponsible drinking and moving from one town to the next. Just the two of us and the unknown of the road. And the food...Aus, can you imagine how good the food is in a place like New Orleans?" I laugh. "They eat gumbo, I think." "I've never had gumbo. I bet it's delicious." "Me neither. I hear it's spicy." "I love spicy." "Me too." Arms crossed behind his head, he stares into the distance. "It wouldn't be running, brother. We'd be searching for something better. Nobody to hurt us or tell us what to do. No more past to remind us of the pain. Just today and tomorrow, and all the possibilities in the world. “That Finnish band told me about a few places I’ve never heard of before. It would be you and me again. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” He focuses on my eyes and unleashes that smirk again. “Yeah, it would, Joe. It would.” “Maybe one day, brother. Maybe one day.” “Maybe, Joe. Maybe.” JUNE 29TH - WALKING ALONGSIDE THE CANAL: The sun sneaks through the breaks in the leaves, bathing the ground in a multitude of sunlight and shadows. To my left is the canal, its dark and murky water littered with fauna and fallen branches. To my right, woodland with lush green trees and drystone walls. Next to me, the girl I love, and our child within. Fingers interlocked, we stroll along the canal on one of the summer’s hottest days yet. “I can’t imagine how hard walking will become,” she says, dressed in an orange sundress that’s tighter around her stomach than usual. Wide circular-rimmed sunglasses drown her face, her wonderful eyes hidden from view, her forearms covered in an array of bracelets and strips of knotted-together fabric. “Don’t worry, I can’t imagine we’ll have too many days like this,” I say, my own view shielded by the chunky black sunglasses I found in an odds-and-ends shop three summers ago. “You know how it works: one amazing weekend, everyone rushes to buy barbecue supplies. Excitement builds as we all dream that this is the year, and then, like it never arrived, we descend back into grey mornings and drizzly afternoons.” “Ever the optimist,” she says, sticking out her tongue. “But I mean walking in general. Each day it gets harder.” “You can hardly see your bump. You’re still as slim as always.” “I can feel it, trust me. I’m heavy all over. Can you imagine what it’ll be like when I’m gigantic?” “I doubt you’ll get gigantic.” “Oh, I will. This little bundle is turning into a massive fatty,” she says, smiling and blowing her hair off the front of her sunglasses. “I guess we won’t be able to hide it from people soon,” I say, smiling myself, although this lethargic offering has become so frequent, I’ve forgotten what a real smile feels like. “Yeah, I think it’s safe to tell everyone now. I guess that’s when we get all the presents and advice.” “And the questions,” I say. “Lots and lots of questions.” “Everyone will be excited for us.” “You think?” “Of course. At least, to our face, anyway.” She laughs and rests her head on my shoulder. I make another pathetic attempt at a smile, gazing over the water as a stationary barge boat consumes nearly half the canal. Red and white all over, its wooden structure juts up and over the edge of the bank, tied to the side with a black rope I assume was once white. I love walking beside the canal, especially in weather like this. Shaded from the trees above, I can walk all the way into Halifax without so much as breaking a sweat. Parallel to woodland most of the way, this side of the canal remains in the shade, only the occasional clearing showering the ground in brief sunny delight. Homes that housed my youthful dreams and fantasies line the other side of the bank. My father and I used to walk along here every Sunday morning, him bringing his guitar to teach me snippets of tunes. Gazing at those houses, I’d imagine sitting in their gardens with a guitar of my own, playing and strumming, until one day I’d teach my own son. I keep thinking about my father, and long ago memories of no real significance. Simple moments, such as the time he wrapped my arm in a bandage, telling me a story about when he fell out of a tree. Laughing at his mocked squeals and silly voices, I forgot about the pain. Or a random memory of standing in a school playground, Dad crouched on one knee and tying my shoelace. “You’ll be able to do this for yourself soon, kiddo,” he said, looking up at me. “I’ll teach you when we get home, if you like.” “Yes, please,” I said, hopping on one foot. I didn’t have a father, rather a superhero. Big, strong, fast and funny. I’d read comic books each day after school, picturing him as one of the X Men, or saving Spiderman after he ran into trouble. Each day, I looked up to him in awe, loving him, but in a different way to my mother; a father’s role, that of protector and monster-beater. Soon my own son or daughter will look up to me like that. But I’m no superhero. I’m not strong enough, or fast enough, or funny enough. Wiping my forehead with my free hand, I breathe the fresh air scented with freshly cut grass. Today, the shade only does so much, the heat too intense for my poor Yorkshire body. I wear shorts for the first time in years, the faded blue denim frayed along the bottom, the right pocket half-torn and hanging down my thigh. “I can’t remember the last time it was so hot,” I say, wiping my forehead again. “This is what I’m saying. And you’re not carrying another human being in your tummy.” “You can hardly call it a human being.” “It? Did you just refer to my son or daughter as an it?” I bite my lip and scrunch my nose. “I think I did,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to ask you. How do we refer to…well, it?” Laughing, she places her head on my shoulder again; it bouncing up and down with each gentle step. “Well, not as it. And I don’t know. I think some couples create a nickname of sorts.” “What, like Baby B or Mini Aus?” “I guess, something like that,” she says. “Or we could come up with a name that’s gender neutral, so whatever he or she turns out to be, we already have a name.” “A name? Already?” “Maybe,” she says, shrugging. “We need to come up with one at some point.” “Yeah, but not yet, right?” Lifting her head, she laughs and closes her eyes. “Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean it like that.” “Of course not,“ she says, kissing my cheek and quickening her step. She laughs again. “It still makes me laugh when I think of your face the other day.” “Don’t.” “I’m sorry, but it was funny.” “The fact I’m a terrible father’s funny?” “Stop it. That’s not true.” I mumble under my breath, glancing over the water once more. The first scan still keeps me awake at night, as I remain unnerved by my reaction. In the waiting room beforehand, I didn’t comfort B or calm the situation, rather sat in silence, my shoulders arched and head slumped forward. “Would you like to come this way, Mr and Mrs Ashford?” said the nurse. B clenched her hand around mine. “Sure,” she said, clearing her throat. “Call us Aus and B, though.” An antiseptic linger filled the hallway, the cream walls the same as we rounded each corner. Each door identical, we passed closed ones and open ones; couples in chairs as they awaited for this and that; doctors scurrying past in white coats; nurses consumed by clipboards and papers. The bright lights hurt, and the ever intensifying smell burned my nostrils, and each step worked my stomach into a further frenzy. Faster and faster went my breath. Harder and harder beat my heart. Holding B’s hand, I sensed nothing at all, my entire being numb and lifeless. It didn’t feel like walking, rather floating down an endless corridor. Is this what death feels like? On entering the room, I grew faint and dizzy, rushing past the doctor, or nurse, or whoever she was, and towards the chair that resided beside the bed. My chair. The father’s chair, the person who’s supposed to comfort the mother, not dash to sit down for fear of losing consciousness. “Hello, Beatrice and Aus…dylan? Is that right?” asked the doctor, or nurse, or whoever the hell she was. Nodding, I looked through her and focused on the white wall behind. “Okay…” she said, pursing her lips. “Well, if you’d like to lie down, Beatrice. We’ll get started.” Rough white sheets crackled under B’s weight, her neck and head settling into the thin, flimsy pillow before the nurse, or doctor, or whoever she was rubbed circles around her stomach with some plastic contraption that looked like an old-fashioned telephone. Round and round in circles she pushed it, my stomach following suit, my head, lighter and lighter. One deep breath after another, I clenched B’s hand, hoping to settle my inner turmoil and offer the strength she needed. The room fell silent, the buzz of machines the only sound. Hearing each beat of my heart, feeling each surge and pounding of my chest, I closed my eyes, the bright lights too much to handle. “Oh my God,” said B, squeezing my fingers and pushing herself up into a sitting position. I’d forgotten about the monitor, the reason I’d booked a day off work and why we’d ventured to a hospital. I saw him, or her, for the first time, and for a brief second my face relaxed and my chest eased. Fuzzy and grainy, and barely visible at all, a little curled-up, human-like ball floated in the middle of the screen. “Is that…is it…?” I whispered, my throat dry. “Yes,” said the nurse or doctor, or whoever she was. “That’s your baby.” B said nothing, her fingers still clasped around mine. Unblinking, I didn’t take my eyes off the monitor, scanning it from left to right, capturing every possible detail. Out the side of my mouth, I sensed a smile, a genuine one. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘This is our baby. It’s beautiful and lovely and real. This is real. We’re real. Everything’s real, and everything’s okay.’ I pictured holding him or her for the first time, kissing their nose and lips and forehead. I saw me and B overlooking their crib, watching our baby sleep in a room within a house that will soon become our home. I imagined lazy mornings with our little bundle nestled between us, playing with their fingers and toes, and reading one story after another. I smiled because everything was real; everything would be okay. But the skin around my mouth grew heavy as a surge of panic throbbed through my veins. Numb and lifeless, I continued to stare at the screen, but no longer with longing. ‘This is real!’ I thought, my heart almost tearing through my chest. ‘Our baby is real. This is real. Everything’s real, and I can’t do this.’ “Hello, you,” B said, her voice cracking. “You’re… Is everything okay?” she asked the person still rubbing her stomach. “Everything’s okay, right?” “Everything looks normal and fine. You seem to have a very healthy baby on your hands. Would you like to hear the heartbeat?” B nodded whilst I remained unmoved and useless. Dreamlike, I became detached from the moment, a hazy memory you can’t quite grab hold of. Silence took over once more, but then a single thud, followed by another, and more and more as they grew louder and louder. “That’s your baby’s heartbeat. And everything sounds perfect,” said the nurse, or doctor, or whoever she was. “Oh my God,” B said. Facing me for the first time since she laid down, her smile faded. I’m not sure what she saw. I don’t want to know what she saw. Whatever fear-filled face looked back, it was enough to kill her smile during a moment we should both treasure forever. There’s only one first scan. Only one moment you hear your baby’s heartbeat for the first time. I ruined it. I destroyed it for us both. I can’t shift B’s face, or the monitor, or the sound of thud-thud-thumping. Each day I look at the image of our baby, framed in a little white piece of card. I hoped so much that seeing him or her would change everything. It hasn’t, because the fear remains, and all she does is play it off as some humorous anecdote we’ll one day tell our kids. It wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now, and I doubt something so horrible ever will be. Each morning I look at myself in the mirror, disgusted at the person reflecting back. Angry at the weak man who hesitated when given the opportunity to fall in love with his child. Angry at the doctor or nurse, or whoever the hell she was, her pitying smile and condescending tone, no doubt meeting useless fathers like me all the time. Angry at B, for how can she love me and accept everything’s fine? Why do things have to change? Why did this all have to happen now, when so much changes anyway? Is it not enough to finish school? To start a career? To figure out tomorrow…next year…the next decade? Are there not enough decisions as it is without involving a little person who’ll soon rely on us to decide everything. Hell, I’m still incapable of choosing for myself. “You okay?” B asks, snapping me out of my misery. “Yeah. Lost in my own world, that’s all.” “Unlike you,” she says, prodding my arm and stepping into me. “You know I’m only joking about the other day, right? And that I do actually believe you’ll be an amazing dad. Because you will, and already are.” “You think?” I half-cough, half-laugh. “It’s true. You’re here, and that’s all that matters. This is hard. The other day was emotional, and I don’t want you beating yourself up just because you didn’t dance around the waiting room. I know what you’re like, and you’ll just worry yourself more.” “Come on, B. There’s a difference between dancing and falling apart like I did.” “You didn’t fall apart. We shared an amazing moment together, one I’ll never forget. What else matters?” she says, stopping and halting me as she does. Stood in an opening, the sun bathes down on us. The oranges in B’s dress turn golden, my dark denim shorts transform into the blue of the sky. Heat soaks through my white shirt, the beads of sweat above my brow bulging to a point of no return. Soothing, the sun massages my tense muscles, rubbing my head with its warm fingers. B’s touch helps too, her hands stroking the sides of my arms. “You’re right,” I say, nodding. “I suppose I just wish—“ “Don’t. Everything’s fine. Everything will always be fine, Aus.” “Okay. Okay. I know. Should we head back?” I ask, kicking a few loose stones on the gravel path into the open water. “Sure. What would you like to do?” I pause, smiling as I picture my father and me sat on the banking. “Let’s play together. I haven’t heard you sing in so long.” “Really? That’s what you want to do?” “Yeah. Let’s do something we haven’t done for a while; that always makes us smile.” Wrapping her arms around my neck, she kisses my dry lips. “I love that idea.” “And I’m writing you a letter tonight,” I continue. “I haven’t written to you in weeks.” “I’ve noticed.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I haven’t written you, either.” “But it’s my turn.” “You better get writing then,” she whispers, an inch from my lips. “Because I miss reading your messy handwriting.” “My messy handwriting?” Pushing her away, I cough and splutter. “My handwriting’s wonderful. It’s your chicken scratch that’s—“ “Blah, blah, blah,” she says, placing her index finger over my mouth. “Just hug me and kiss me, please.” Obliging, I place my lips over hers and run my fingers down her neck until they graze over her cloud-shaped birthmark. Her kiss tastes of cherries like it often does, her favourite lip balm never far away. I work my way up her cheek and then to her forehead, resting my chin against her hair and gazing out to the water. Shadows from the trees reach out into the canal, strips of sunlight streaking up into the green woodland beyond. Leaves rustle above, a bird escaping into the sky, no doubt. The smell of nature, its woody, flowery, fresh aroma mixing with the old water from the canal. Everything’s fine. Everything will always be fine. I replay her words, and they’re true, yet so difficult to trust. Fine doesn’t feel like this. But they’re true. They have to be. JULY 15TH - THE COFFEE SHOP: “What should we do this weekend?” asks the somewhat familiar girl at the table next to us. “There’s a gig at The Trades Club,” says one of the guys, a floppy black fringe covering half his face. “No, I’ve seen that band before. They’re shit live,” says the other guy, decked in a denim jacket with denim jeans, and a denim backpack slung over his shoulders. “What about James?” says the girl, her blonde hair bundled together and kept in place by a red and orange neckerchief. “Isn’t he having a party?” “That’s next weekend,” says the denim-clad guy. “Yeah, I think Stephanie’s having one. Are you thinking about hers?” says the one with the fringe, his tattooed arms creeping out from under his baggy black t-shirt. “Oh, I don’t know,” says the girl, standing up and brushing down her stripy blue skirt. “I’m going to the bathroom.” “Okay,” says Mr Denim, pulling out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. “Get us a coffee on your way back.” All three rise, the girl venturing to the bathroom, the guys walking outside with cigarettes in their mouths. Slumping in my chair, I rest my cheek on the cushion and watch, undecided as to whether I’ve met any of them before. They know B, the girl hugging and congratulating her as soon as we walked through the door. Hovering behind her, I snook into my favourite chair before any of them could do the same to me. “You look beautiful,” said the girl. “Your bump’s so cute.” “Thanks,” said B, smiling, although I sense she’s as frustrated as I am. It’s not like we announced it in the local paper or held a coming-out party, but once we made a conscious effort to tell a few people - or should I say, for B to tell a few people - the snowball effect rumbled into gear. “I just heard the news,” said a girl in the supermarket, two days ago. “I’m so happy for you both,” said another in the middle of the street, as we walked home from the train station. “You look wonderful. Are you having a baby shower? When are you due? Is it a boy or girl? Can I feel the bump?” Each time, B smiles as I throw up in my mouth. She has to hate it. She must. Everything seems so forced and fake, and I’m sure they judge and pity us once we move out of hearing. “They’re too young…I can’t believe they’re so irresponsible…what will they do for money? She’s too good for him,” they no doubt whisper. From our secret into general knowledge in a matter of days. I don’t like it, but in some ways it’s a relief. Secrets are hard, with their guilt and the constant worry of slipping up. Then again, everyone now knows, so as I walk through the street I sense eyes and whispers honed in on me. When I walk into The Pub, people I’ve known from a distance for years give me a slight nod of the head. A nod, I presume, that translates into, good luck, you poor son of a bitch. It makes me want to hide away in my room never to leave. In bed, I’m safe with books and music and curtains I can close. Outside rests reality, ready to pounce on me, but again, people know, which means no secret to keep me awake at night. Only, I do lay awake at night. It’s a dance I cannot keep pace with. One day, I’m fine, because everything is fine. Everything will always be fine, like B said herself. My parents know. Everyone knows. I’m with the girl I love, taking the next step with her, a step I’ve dreamed of for oh-so-long. People search a lifetime for this. It’s fine. Everything is fine. Everything is beyond fine. Yet…the money…middle-of-the-night-feeds…B in hospital, pushing a goddamn human being from a place I’ve worshiped since the first time I placed eyes on it. Everybody knows. Those two guys do, outside the window smoking and wondering why she’s with me. Pitying me and thankful they’re not me. Everything is fine, but far from it. B sits in the same chair she always does, but it doesn’t feel the same anymore. She reads and lounges like nothing differs, but it does. Picking up my coffee, I lift it to my lips and bite the rim. With a prolonged inhale, I drift away into the haze of coffee beans and caffeine. It’s too quiet in here today, too easy to lose myself in my own thoughts. An older couple sit at a table further back into the coffee shop, but they’re too far away to hear anything above a mumble. Where are the staff and the coffee-bean-grinding, and the frothing of milk? Where’s the coffee shop chatter to help keep my wondering mind at bay? Where’s the music and surround-sound of life? Shuffling in her seat, B disturbs the hush for a brief second. Curled up, she sits on her legs, her entire frame nestled on the crumpled green cushion. Her baggy white blouse stands out against it, as does her thin orange skirt that’s almost transparent as the sun bathes her in light. She remains the same B: same firm legs, same slim and defined arms, same neck, mouth, nose, and eyes. At some point, I assume she’ll bulge and grow and triple in size, but at the moment a minimal bump protrudes from her otherwise flat tummy. But it is there. A few weeks ago, I could barely tell, but last night, as we lay in bed, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Can you tell?” she asked, stroking her hand up and over the bump, her blue t-shirt tucked under her chin. “Yeah. It’s getting bigger.” “You think?” “Trust me,” I said, hovering my hand over it, wary to touch the fragile home my future offspring lives in. “But it’s still small, isn’t it?” she said, her tone flat. “Don’t you think it should be bigger?” “I’m sure it’s as big as it should be right now.” “Yeah. I’m sure it’s fine.” She grabbed my hand. “Here,” she said, placing her palm over mine. “Can you believe there’s a person in there?” “Gentle,” I said, pulling my hand back. “It’s fine,” she whispered. “You won’t hurt them.” Holding a breath, I nodded and rested my palm on her bare stomach, keeping it there until she drifted asleep. I’m not sure when I finally succumbed, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her little bump. Picturing the little person inside, I imagined if a he or she nestled within. I wondered if they had my nose or my eyes, or if they’d develop my little quirks, or if they’d remind me of B each time I held them. I pictured the three of us in bed, cuddled up under a blanket as we sang and told stories. The rest of the world would continue to spin outside, but it wouldn’t matter because we were all we needed. A family, a unity; something I could forever love and treasure, and for a few minutes I smiled in peace. But a new day began. This day. It’s too quiet in here today, the sound of silence too much. I try to cling to my feelings from last night, but they slip from my grasp. I want them back, but the worry refuses, and this silence…this damn silence. We haven’t spoken to each other for thirty minutes, an unusual act I used to treasure, and although I assume others consider it strange, silence between B and me is as normal as it gets. Especially here, in these chairs and by this window. Once, maybe three years ago, I sat here as she began a six-hour shift. Midweek sometime, with nothing else to do, I sat and drank coffee and read The Stranger cover to cover. Pouring coffee and serving cakes, B dashed around the room, clearing tables and bringing me fresh cups of fuel. We never said a word. Not a single one during the entire six hours. One page after another, and one cup after the other, I read and drank and drifted off into Albert Camus’ imagination. “You ready to go?” she asked. “Huh?” I groaned, looking around and realising we were alone. “Let’s go home so you can tell me about this book,” she continued, lifting it from my fingertips. A couple, supposedly in love, but one that doesn’t say a word for hours on end. In bed, we read, often in silence before we both drift off. When we drive, we listen to music, holding hands, but enjoying the sounds around us. When we walk, we watch and observe but often leave out words. It isn’t awkward. It isn’t through suffering. She does her thing, as I do mine, and all is fine because we’re together. But this isn’t the same. Maybe it is for her, but it isn’t for me. “I was speaking to my dad last night,” I blurt, unable to cope with this eerie, haunting silence any longer. “Yeah?” she says, still consumed by her book. “What about?” “You know what he’s like. He asked about names and what we’d like them to buy for the baby’s room, and whether you would continue to work or stay at home. It made me realise how much there is to do.” She looks at me, turning the book over and placing it on her knees. “Yeah, there is. What did you tell him?” I laugh, remembering my father’s many questions. Starting the conversation with so much excitement, he grew more frustrated and forceful as it went on. “Not much. If I’m honest, I didn’t really have any answers. It’s like we started the conversation as equals, but it ended as a father lecturing his little boy.” “I’m sure he didn’t mean to make you feel—“ “I know. It just made me realise how much we have to do.” “Well,” she says, propping her elbows on her knees. “We better figure out some of those answers.” “Yeah.” “Shall we go for a walk?” “Soon,” I say, scooting to the edge of my chair. “I suppose there was one thing he asked that I nearly had an answer for.” “Yeah?” “Yeah. Something we’ve talked about in the past, but not for a while. It made me think about when we finished uni, and how much has happened since. I can’t believe it’s a year since we graduated.” “I know. It feels like another life.” I run my fingers up and down my maroon chinos. “He asked where we would live, and it made me wonder why we were still at home and not living together. The plan was to save up and find a place, after all.” “I thought we still were saving.” “I know. And we are, but we’ve not spoken about it for months.” “Well, we’ve had other things to consider,” she says, pointing to her stomach. “Sure, but it’s a reason to start thinking about it again, don’t you think? We need to find a place before the big day.” “I suppose so,” she says, resting her book on her knees and falling back into her chair. “No harm in looking.” “Definitely. And this led my dad to ask another question, which again I nearly had an answer for, because it’s always been part of the plan.” “The plan?” “You know, our life. Our future and marriage.” “I see.” “I know we haven’t spoken a lot about it in the past, but it’s always been part of the future I imagined, and now we’re having a baby it makes sense.” “How romantic.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” I say, my fidgety fingers scratching faster against my chinos. “I figured we’d get married before having children, but I suppose life just happens sometimes.” “Jesus, Aus. Really?” she says, rolling her eyes. “Shit. I didn’t mean it like that, either.” I sigh and take a deep breath. “Okay…I love you and always have, and I can’t imagine a future without you. When I think about where we are in ten years’ time, it’s a bit of a mystery, but we’re married with a house and a family, and so long as we have that, I’m happy.” Smiling, she reaches for my hands and frantic fingers. “Aus—“ “Like you said, university feels like another lifetime away, and I can’t fathom where the last few months have gone. Soon, we’ll be parents. Soon, we’ll be thirty. I just want to do what’s right by you and our family. For weeks I’ve said there’s no rush, but I suppose speaking to my dad last night made me realise there is.” She slides her fingers into my palms and squeezes my fingers to a standstill. “I know what you’re saying, and you’re right, these last few months have flown by. But I honestly don’t think there’s a rush when it comes to marriage. We’re together, aren’t we? What does marriage prove? What does getting married before we have this baby prove?” “I know, but…” “Sweetie,” she says, moving her right hand to my shoulder. “I love you, and you’re doing great, but these last few weeks have been hard for you. Do you really think worrying about marriage and a wedding will help? And we’ll move in with each other, and find a house, and play happy families, but right now, we just need to focus on this little baby inside me. “That’s what we’re saving up for. That’s where our focus needs to be. Let’s not complicate life with anything else right now, okay?” Biting my upper lip, I sigh and relax my shoulders. “I know. I’m sorry. I guess speaking to Dad last night—“ “You have nothing to apologise for. You’re here, and so am I. That’s all that matters.” Nodding, I rest my head on her arms. “I know. Thank you.” “Come on,” she says, pushing herself up out of her chair. “Let’s go for that walk and talk, and, who knows, maybe we’ll see an apartment we like.” She reaches for my hand. “Please stop worrying about all the little things. Everything is fine, sweetie. It always will be.” As soon I touch her skin, the back of my neck warms. I keep worrying about so much, about the tiny invisible woes that may or may not ever happen. I dwell on money and responsibility as if they wouldn’t exist without a baby on the way. I focus on the fear, whereas all I should focus on is her. I’ve drifted through a teen-hood of dreams like everyone else, but she’s my constant. The jobs change, and the places I live, and where I ask her to marry me, but the one person who remains by my side in each fantasy is B. Maybe everything isn’t fine right now, but it will be. It’s happening sooner than I ever imagined it would, but it’s no different now than if it happened in five years’ time. It’s me and B against everyone else, and soon we’ll have another member to join our band. Our band. The only band I’ve ever wanted to be part of. Click Here to see a specially designed piece of artwork that accompanies you on this journey. Artwork 3 of 5 - - - - Designed by Robert Cate AUGUST 6TH - THE BAND ROOM: The sanctuary of the band room is a strange one. In its damp and cold form, it’s one of the most abysmal and grim rooms I’ve ever ventured into. I shouldn’t enjoy spending time here, but I do. It’s a home of sorts, and these four dirty walls - I have no idea what the original colour was supposed to be - have seen us create, practice, and execute songs crafted from nothing. I recall a time I couldn’t imagine creating my own lyrics or music. As my father taught me one chord after another, I revelled in the creation of others. “Why do people create their own songs?” I asked, a prepubescent slave to music. “It can’t be as fun as playing songs by The Beatles or Rolling Stones.” Grinning, but keeping his eyes on his strumming fingers, he smiled. “I’ll remind you of saying that when you’re older, son.” At some point, playing songs by others doesn’t quite cut it, and as Joey and I fantasised about owning our own recording studios, creating and writing became part of the process. The day we rented this dirty, horrible room felt like a life-changing and monumental one; as though we’d broken free of our childhood. “We’ll never leave here,” Joey said, pacing up and down, running his hand against the greyish-blackish-brownish-greenish wall. “The drum kit can go here,” he said, directing his arms in a semi-circle. “And I’ll stand here, and you can stand there,” he continued, pointing and hopping from one side of the red carpet to the other. He was right, too. We never have left this place, despite having the opportunity on several occasions. I don’t know why we didn’t whilst we were at university, as travelling back several times each week grew tiresome. Yet, there’s something wonderful about this space that a new room, or a clean room, or a bigger and more spacious room couldn’t replicate. “I’m still buzzing after last week,” Joey says, lounged next to me on the old leather couch that’s seen too many spills and God-knows-what-else over the years. He doesn’t bring girls back here so much anymore, but whilst we were at school it became a pilgrimage of sorts, and I’ve approached this damn couch with caution ever since. “Everyone loved us. Everyone. Best crowd ever.” With a can of warm beer in one hand, and the neck of my guitar in the other, I rest my feet on the coffee table, which, in actual fact, isn’t a table, so much as an old door propped on four beer crates. “It was a good time. You were on top form. Not seen you like that for years.” “I know, I miss that feeling. I didn’t think I’d lost it, but I now realise I have and I want it back. I want to be like when we first started, when we played those old illegal school gigs when everyone raved and crazed in a giant pile of sweaty bodies.” “You make it sound so appealing.” “Don’t pretend like you don’t miss it too,” he says, drinking from his own can of warm beer. “It was special back then, but,” he says, digging his middle finger into my thigh, “it will be special again.” He sighs and takes another swig of beer. “It’s a shame you’ll miss it.” “You kicking me out the band or something?” I say, twisting towards him and laughing. He sighs again, this one heavier. “You won’t be able to do this soon,” he says, folding his arms. “It’s an end of an era, and you know it.” “Wait, because I’m having a baby means I won’t be able to play the bass. Is that what you’re saying?” “That’s exactly what I’m saying. You’ll have dinner to make and nappies to change and a wife to be at the mercy of. There’s no chance you’ll be sat next to me with a cool can of the good stuff in a few months’ time. The days of us relaxing on this amazing couch, listening to The Pixies or The Smiths or The Ramones are dead. The age of Joey and Aus, a superstar duo of guitar playing amazingness, over. You killed us, brother. You’ve killed this.” I laugh and struggle to my feet, slapping his legs and walking towards the drum set. “Be more dramatic, why don’t you? And I’m not going anywhere. Will I be able to do this as often? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean I’m quitting. I need music, Joey. You know this better than anyone.” “I know,” he says, standing and joining me. “But think about what you were part of last week. We were at that festival all day, drank and rocked out with our fellow band-brethren, and stayed up until the sun rose. Are you telling me you’re going to do that once the baby’s born?” He picks up a drumstick and runs it through his fingers. “There’s no chance. B’s a cool girl - so far as girls go - but she won’t let you get away with that.” “Maybe, but—“ “And besides, we’re about to explode. You were there. You saw how people reacted to us. You’ve seen how many downloads we’ve had since. You were there with me, when every single band showered us with praise.” He throws the drumstick to the ground, and walks towards our first ever gig poster. “I told you months ago that this is our summer. Soon, we’ll be touring and supporting every up-and-coming band in England.” He sighs again. “End of an era, brother,” he whispers. I stand behind him and look over his shoulder, at the torn poster from our first battle of the bands. So young, with no songs of our own, and a cocky swagger all teenagers possess once they enter a stage that overlooks their peers. I was sick beforehand and considered making my first gig my last, but as soon as I stepped in front of those lights, and the music kicked in, I lost myself in a haze of nothingness. Joey and I may be complete opposites on stage, but it fuels us both the same. Where he dances and dodges between amps and equipment, I stand still, unmoved for the entire show. I imagine I look bored and uninterested, but my insides buzz with adrenaline, and last week, surrounded by hordes of people on a gorgeous, sunny Leeds afternoon, I drowned in excitement as every hair on my arms stood on end. Within minutes, my nervous tummy eased; tension moved down my shoulders and back. Taking the weeks of anxiety with it, I became lighter and lighter as each song passed. The music soothed me into submission, dissipating my woes, worries and fears. A brief escape into a haven I needed, and one I’d begun to forget existed. A crowd of people stood before me. Loud sounds battered my ears, but I stood in peace, picturing me and B and our little bundle attending a festival, or sitting in the park, the three of us having a picnic as I strummed my guitar and B sung softly. It didn’t matter if it was six months from now, or a year, or five, because we were together, and will soon spend a lifetime side by side. I smiled on stage, lost in my world of music and freedom, a soon-to-be father with lots of worries to worry about, but with more than enough love to keep me going. I smile, recalling the sunny afternoon whilst scanning this wall of posters. It’s hard to believe how many times we’ve ventured on stage together, but here’s the proof. Dozens of posters offering a mere snapshot of our band’s story. Each time, my nerves tear my inners to pieces, but it’s a sensation I miss and need, and a time I feel alive, free and light, floating on stage with music my muse and helping hand. I can’t lose music. I can’t lose this band, or Joey, the only real friend I’ve ever had. In some ways he understands me better than B, and maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the end of our era, because without this; this room, this connection of music; maybe what we have won’t be the same. Maybe it is time for the big break he’s always dreamed about. If it is, he’s right. It must leave without me, and replace me, and forget about me, because how can I follow? “Maybe you’re right,” I say, placing my palm on a poster with each band member’s silhouette decked across it. “I guess if this takes off, it will have to be without me.” Damp and cold, the derelict wall seeps through the old paper. Dragging his foot back and forth, he leans. “No, we’ll figure something out. We couldn’t go on without you. Christ, you’re the one who writes most of the songs,” he says, laughing and slapping me on the shoulder. “It’s not like you’d be the first rock star with a kid.” “Maybe.” I join him and lean against the disgusting wall. The rest of the walls are blank, each as dirty as the last. Besides our instruments and the leather couch, nothing else fits in this decrepit room, but I suppose it’s part of the charm. Impromptu gigs, late night parties, drunken sessions and lazy afternoons, this room of squalor is part of my upbringing. Playing a defining role in my youth; maybe it’s fitting that I move on from it as I descend into true adulthood. “I can’t believe we’re still in this crappy practice room.” I say. “Oh, brother, how could we leave? If these walls could talk…well, they’d have something to say about some of the things I’ve got up to in here.” He winks and nudges into me. “I don’t want to know.” “Such a prude.” He kicks his foot back and forth again, working up a frenzy of dust and dirt. “But never Harriet.” He sighs. “I swear, the fact I never brought her back here still eats away at me. Seriously, how did she resist me all the way through school?” “She has taste.” “No, that can’t be it. It must be a genuine illness.” He smiles. “Anyway, there’s still time. I haven’t finished with that girl yet. There’s no way I’m living another fifty years without knowing what her lips taste like…and skin…and her other tattoos…and—“ “Okay, Joe.” “You know it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time.” “Okay.” I smile but resist a laugh. “You’ll see, brother. You’ll see. That girl and me are destined for each other.” He slaps one of the posters and rustles the paper. “Anyway, how is everything? How’s things between you and B?” “They’re okay, I guess. She misses you.” “I’m sure she does.” He winks again. “In your dreams, dreamer. She only has eyes for me.” “They tell a different tale when they stalk me.” “Such a delusional soul. But she does miss you. You should have a drink with us this week.” “She can’t drink.” “Well, we’ll have her share.” Pushing off the wall, he drifts towards the drum set. “Maybe. I’m pretty damn busy at the moment. People to see. Bands to sign. Songs to sing. Ladies to seduce. You know how it is.” “Sure do. How’s your lady-killing ways at the moment? You haven’t shared any disturbing stories with me for a while. Should I worry?” “I knew deep down you like them.” I laugh. “Not quite. I am beginning to think there might be a lass on the scene…” “Now you’re the delusional one.” “Fine, don’t tell me,” I say, joining him by the drums and cymbals. “And about that drink…how about tomorrow?” “Maybe.” “Come on. What else have you got to do?” “How is she?” “Ask her yourself.” Rolling his eyes, he sits on his amp decorated in a multitude of stickers. “Fine, I’ll have a damn drink with you both. I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s not like the three of us can go out together soon.” “Come on, Joey. Don’t be like this. It’s hard enough.” He lowers his head and sighs. “I’m sorry. I still haven’t got my head around all of this. And when I see B…I don’t know. What do I say? Things are different now.” “She’s still B.” “I know…but it’s different. I guess, I wasn’t ready for this to end,” he says, moving his arms around the room, his tattoos peeking out from under his white shirt sleeves. “Yeah,” I sigh. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m being a shit friend.” He takes a deep breath. “Just feeling sorry for myself. Come on, tell me about you and the baby and all that crap.” “We’re fine.” “Bullshit.” He snorts, clearing his throat. “You seem to forget I’ve known you longer than that girl has.” “Don’t remind me,” I say, looking up to the ceiling with various black streaks smudged across it. “I don’t know…I won’t lie, it’s been an intense few weeks. To be honest, I’ve been fucking useless throughout the whole thing.” “Oh, come on. You’ve—“ “I have. Trust me. I’ve let her down.” “Don’t talk nonsense, brother. You’re handling this far better than most guys our age would. Can you imagine me?” “No, but I also can’t imagine you spending enough time with a girl to get her pregnant.” “That’s certainly the plan.” “You aside, I sense most would have been better equipped than me.” “Stop this nonsensical bullshit. You’re a good guy, one of the best. And you’ll be a top dad. B knows it. I know it. Deep down, I sense you know it, too. You just need to get out of your head and stop worrying about whether you are or aren’t letting B down. I love you like a brother, brother, but your love for that girl will one day give you a heart attack.” I laugh, sitting down on the drummer’s stool. “It’s true. It freaks me out how you place so much trust in someone, but I suppose you found one of the good ones. She’s a good girl, but she isn’t perfect.” “I know she isn’t.“ “Do you?” He smiles, nudging me again. “The sad thing is, my dad probably thought she was perfect at some point. Goes to show how stupid we can be, doesn’t it?” “Joey—“ “B is one of the good ones, though. In fact, she’s so good, she wouldn’t want you to beat yourself up over utter nonsense, either.” “I know, I know.“ “Then stop it. You’re doing alright. You’re doing alright.” “But…” “But what?” “The next scan’s coming up.” “So? Does it matter if it’s a boy or girl?” “It isn’t that.” I push off with my feet and spin in the stool. “What if I panic like last time? What if I just sit there again, useless?” “You won’t.” “What if I do?” “You won’t.” He stops my spinning with his knee. “You’ll be fine. You’ll hold her hand and kiss her. You’ll write her a letter because you’re a complete and utter sap. You’ll be daddy-cool, because behind me, you’re the coolest guy in town.” I laugh under my breath and rub my hands down my faded red chinos. “Maybe.” “No maybe, brother. You’ve got this. You’ll step up like you did on stage. King of the bass. The bass-man. Lord bass of bass town.” “Well, if fatherhood’s as easy as playing guitar, I should have it covered.” He nods, looking above and beyond me. “It was an amazing gig, wasn’t it?” “Yeah.” “The crowd, the noise, the weather, and the way everyone danced like they didn’t give a shit. The microphone was part of me. I could touch and taste the sound’s vibrations, and the damn-good-vibes flowing through the air.” He sighs. “I miss it already.” Swivelling on the stool again, I stare at my beaten brown Derby shoes. “It’s good that it’s getting easier,” he says. “And you know I said you’re one of the best guys I know? I lied. You’re the best by a distance. Seriously, I don’t think you appreciate how brave you are. So many guys would run a mile. I would, and I hate myself for that, because that’s what she did. She ran. She left. I don’t like to think I’m like her, but…” “You’re not, Joe. I think you’d surprise yourself, because if what I am right now is brave, you’re more than cut out for it.” He smiles that barely visible smile and places his left hand on my shoulder. “Maybe. Better not impregnate anyone just in case, huh?” “That’s probably a good idea.” He laughs and dashes to the other side of the band room. “Jesus, can you imagine what my child would be like?” “I’d rather not, if it’s okay.” “I’d definitely procreate a better son than you.” “Shut up.” “You know it’s true.” “Shut up.” He laughs louder, picking up his guitar and holding it above his head. “I suppose I’ll have to give in one day, won’t I? It’s why we’re here in the first place, to learn and pass on our awesomeness. How could I possibly neglect the future of our human race its finest specimen yet?” “I have no words.” “A little boy with my good looks, wit, charm, and overall demeanour…combined with Harriet’s incredible figure, hair, and intellect…” He thrusts the guitar into my arms. “Are you kidding me? That kid will rule the world.” “Or destroy it,” I say. Smirk and all, he places his arms behind his neck. “One day, brother. If I fail to rule the world, he will. I’ll make sure of it.” AUGUST 18TH - A BUSY BABY SHOP: As I survey the near-endless row of baby cots, I imagine The Shawshank Redemption and Morgan Freeman’s husky voice. Watching an entire movie is an arduous task, but when it features Morgan Freeman, as so many do, it’s less torturous. I often imagine Morgan narrating the books I read, his voice an improvement over my own. “What are you thinking?” B asks, approaching from behind and interlocking our arms. “You look deep in thought.” “The Shawshank Redemption,” I say, looking at a lime green cot. “Come again?” “They’re like mini prison cells, aren’t they?” I say, pointing to the beige cot in front. “Row after row of little baby cells, ready to house little baby fugitives.” “I see,” she says, stepping towards them and running her hand along a wooden railing. “When you look at my baby’s future bed, you think about prison?” Spinning on the spot, she leans back and smiles. “Is that what you’re saying?” I laugh, stepping in and wrapping my arms around her waist. “A little, yes.” “You are useless.” She laughs and places her head into my chest, me resting my chin on her and inhaling her hair’s fresh aroma of coconut shampoo and peach conditioner. “Don’t you think it’s odd how they make them like this?” I say, peering over her shoulder. “Imagine you’re a baby for a second. One moment, you’re rocked to sleep in your mother’s arms, the next you wake up at the bottom of a bottomless pit.” “I wouldn’t call it bottomless.” “To a baby it is.” I scan the white mattress and its various stickers warning of suffocation and fire. “To a baby, this is the worst place ever. It’s what separates him from Mum and Dad. The one place he’s left on his own. And when he’s eventually able to hoist himself up, he clings to the bars like an inmate. This is why they wake up crying in the middle of the night.” “Not because they’re hungry?” “Nope.” “What do you suggest as an alternative?” she asks, still nestled in my dark blue t-shirt. “A hammock,” I say, tapping my fingers on her back. “That’s sure to create a well-rounded human being.” She snorts, my t-shirt’s fabric stifling her laugh. “We are not raising my son in a hammock.” “Don’t dismiss it so fast.” I cup her face in my palms and stroke her bangs out of her eyes. “I have this random memory as a baby, all hazy and dreamy, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s real or a dream, but I climbed the damn bars like these and escaped.” I plant my palm on the beige railing. “I landed on my head as I fell and cried as my mum ran in. That’s all I remember, but there has to be a reason I remember it. It clearly scarred me, so I think we should save our own little man from such pain.” Placing her hands over my own, she shakes her head. “Not a chance, mister.” “You know, you don’t get to make all the decisions.” “Yes I do.” “Is that so?” I stop in front of a blue cot with a giant yellow Pooh bear at the bottom. Surrounded by blue blankets and a fire engine-shaped pillow, I practically see myself constructing this in some future house of ours. “Of course. I have to carry him, so I make all the decisions,” she says, lingering on the word, all. “If you want to make them, you carry him in your womb. Deal?” “Well, I would, but…” “That’s what I thought,” she says, blowing her fringe from her eyes. “Fine. In that case, how about this one?” I say, tapping the blue cot. “It’s a solid boy one.” “That’s what I’m thinking.” “But, do we want an overly boyish one?” “Well, we are having a boy, so…” “What if they’re wrong?” “They’re right ninety-five-percent of the time, and when it comes to boys, they’re never wrong.” “How do you know that?” I shrug. “Either way, maybe we should go with something neutral…like white?” I shrug again, reaching for the Pooh Bear from the bottomless pit. “We’re getting him a Pooh Bear, too, right?” “It’s good to see you smile again,” she says, rubbing my upper arm. “I didn’t realise I was.” “You are. And I’ve missed it. It’s nice to have it back.” Silently, we look at each other, our chests a few inches apart. It’s too bright in this humongous warehouse-like room, the long halcyon bulbs washing out her features. I hate soulless, featureless stores like these, row after row of gleaming white product stands and flawless display areas. So busy. So full of busy-bodies rushing around with no time to explore and enjoy the adventure. Maybe this is how it is now. After all, you can’t buy baby clothes from second hand shops, or take a chance on vintage furniture that may or may not be riddled with danger. Babies require new things, clean things, expensive things. I grip the blue cot tighter, due to the overbearing thought that this is the rest of my life. I can’t decide whether it’s easier surrounded by soon-to-be mothers with bulging bellies; fathers with six bags in each hand; or grandparents dashing and rushing, picking up teddies and onesies and pictures of babies. In part, it terrifies me, because it’s all the more real. But in another, I’m soothed, because these people are now my people. I’m not alone in this, and maybe I’m realising I never was; not with B beside me, offering her strength. Easier, but far from easy. I can picture him now as I close my eyes. Resting in B’s arms, she rocks him and hushes him to sleep, me watching from behind as the proud father to a wonderful family. Maybe it’s this that makes it easier. The fact I’ll soon have a family. I’ll truly belong. Each day I’ll wake up surrounded by those who love me, and who I love with all my worth. “Aus,” says my mother, bundling beside me and bringing me back to the prison-esque cots. “Come choose the stroller you want,” she continues, grabbing my wrist. “We’ve found some lovely ones.” No longer my mother, but a grandmother. It’s like she’s outgrown me, ecstatic about elevating to the next stage of her life. The fear she couldn’t hide when we told her is now gone, replaced with pure excitement and unbridled happiness. When she sees me now, she doesn’t see her son. When she sees B, her eyes hone in on her tummy, a grandmother with purpose, and an energetic skip to her step. “Which one do you like?” she asks, guiding me towards the stage of strollers overflowing with colour and aerodynamic curves. “Your father and I want to buy you both one.” “You don’t have to do that,” B says, appearing to my right, next to my mother. “We want to.” Moving her hands from me to B, she rests her head on her shoulder. “It’s a grandparent’s duty.” “Are you sure?” asks B, looking to me. “They’re so expensive, and you’ve already done so much.” “Yeah, Mum. You don’t have to.” “No argument,” says my father, appearing on my left. “You should know by now there’s no point arguing with your mother.” “Exactly, so let’s choose one,” Mum says, striding towards the clean, crisp stroller display area. Curves and features vie for attention, enhanced with streaks of neon colour: orange handles, pink wheels, purple trays, and green butterfly silhouettes. “Don’t you think they’re all a little…overkill?” I say, running a finger over a carbon fibre handle. “Some of these cost as much as a car.” “We want our grandson to be safe,” my mother says. “Did I have a stroller like this?” “Nope.” My father shakes his head. “They didn’t make them like this when you were a baby, Aus,” she interrupts. “There’s no point in arguing,” he whispers. I smile, flicking the cardboard price tag hanging from the flamboyant handle. “I like this one,” says my mother, grabbing one big enough to hold three children. “What do you think, B?” “I like it,” she says. “It would go great with a bag I saw the other day.” “It’s a lovely colour. And do you see how much storage it has?” “Yeah. I wonder how small it is when you fold it up?” “Look,” says my mother, pointing to a glossy leaflet. “It has a few sizes, so when he gets bigger, so does the stroller.” “That’s great. And look,” B says, pointing to something. “Come on,” whispers my father, holding the top of my arm. “We’re no longer needed.” “Yeah?” He nods. “B? I think we’re going to get a drink. Do you want anything?” Waving her arm, she mumbles something. “Come on,” he says. “They won’t even notice we’re gone.” Walking away from the strollers, past the cots and rail after rail of tiny-people clothes, we head towards the toy section, its shelves full of strange figures and animations. “Soon, you’ll know all of these characters,” says my father, holding out both palms. He laughs. “I hope you’re prepared to know every song and nursery rhyme off by heart.” “It’s not like you did.” “Who says?” “Considering we didn’t have a TV, and all you ever read to me was the Brother’s Grimm, I don’t think I ever knew the height of popular culture.” Sighing, he placed his arm around my neck. “You’d be surprised, son. You knew every TV character there was.” “Yeah?” “Oh, yeah.” Picking up a talking green bear, he twirls it in his hands. “How are you at the moment?” he asks. “Good,” I say. “She’s doing well.” “I didn’t mean B.” “I’m fine, too. Although I find places like this a bit overwhelming.” “That’s because you’re a father. All these places do is steal your money and fill your house with crap you use once, and spend the next five years trying to give away.” “Even a luddite like you?” “Especially a luddite like me. I’m telling you, whilst your mother was pregnant she became obsessed with every book and gadget she could get her hands on.” “No way.” He nods, putting the teddy back on the shelf. “You seem to be doing better. Not as…stressed.” Dropping my gaze, I focus on his beige corduroy pants and dark blue moccasins. “I’m getting there. It’s getting easier, although I still freak out from time to time.” “Again, that just makes you a father. It’s amazing what those scans do to you, though. They put everything into perspective.” I nod, picturing the waiting room where I twiddled my thumbs and scratched my palms. Not like last time. Not like last time. Not like last time, I repeated in my head. Reading a magazine with a pregnant woman on the cover, B sat beside me, the two of us silent as we awaited our grandest news so far. Staring at the white wall adorned with large posters of families and babies and expecting mothers, my heart raced and limbs ached. Whatever happens, be strong, I thought. In a few minutes we’ll know if we’re having a son or daughter. It’s a good day. A happy day. A strong day. “Hi, B. Hi, Aus,” said the nurse, or doctor, or whoever she was - I still didn’t know. “You ready to come through?” Standing and wrapping my hand around B’s, I smiled, determined to be stronger, better, and braver than last time. Covering the standard small talk, B and the nurse/doctor/whoever she was chatted as we walked down the bright-white corridors and into the room with various machines and monitors. The same monitors that introduced me to my child, and would soon introduce us to either a boy or girl. My chest pounded and rumbled, but not like the last time. Not like last time. Not like last time. Not like last time. “How are you feeling today, Ausdylan?” asked the lady with the answers to all our questions. “I’m fine, thank you,” I said, sitting in my rightful chair. She nodded and squirted gel on B’s tummy, moving her metal wand in circles. In an instant, the monitor showed her insides, a curled up ball filling the centre of the screen; larger than before, more pronounced and childlike. Before, it seemed to float in B’s womb, a tiny bundle with few features. Now, it pushed against her with a bigger head and real arms, and feet that looked like feet. “Everything looks fine,” she said. “You’re sure you want to know the sex?” Squeezing my hand, B coughed and cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, please.” Time slowed. As with the first scan, I seemed detached from my body, floating away as I awaited her words. Would I have a son? Would I have a daughter? Would I panic like last time, or would I finally turn a corner? Not like last time. Not like last time. Not like last time… “Well,” she said in slow motion. “You look to have a healthy baby boy. Congratulations.” Pushing her spare hand towards her mouth, B gasped. I wanted to speak and say something, to bundle B in my arms and kiss her tummy; our son. Yet I couldn’t move. I couldn’t take my eyes off the monitor and his curled up form. All images of pink clothes and bows vanished, replaced by blue and footballs, and the toys I used to play with. A father and son, walking along the canal, me demonstrating this chord and that, sharing stories about when Joey and I went here and there. Like my own father drowns me in tales of my mother, and how wonderful she is through his eyes; I can now do the same for my boy. During this endless moment, my love for B grew and grew, bulging to near impossible heights. Carrying our boy and our everything, I found strength in the chair beside her bed, a father-to-be…a husband, someday…a man right now. With a deep breath I faced her, squeezing her fingers and smiling in the hope she’d see. I love you, I thought. “Would you like another picture?” asked the nurse, or doctor, or whoever she might be. B nodded, and so did I. “Yes, please,” we said simultaneously. Picking up a small red tambourine, I tap my fingers against it. “Were you there for the scans?” I ask my father. “Of course,” he says, spinning a mini drumstick between his fingers. “I didn’t miss a single one.” “How did you feel?” “Each one was amazing. To see you inside your mother’s tummy, and hear your heartbeat…I cried each time.” “You cried?” “I’m afraid so. Although I think you should know by now, your old man’s a big softie.” “I had my suspicions.” I smile, and place the tambourine on the shelf. “Didn’t you panic?” “Of course I did.” “It’s just…” “Dyl,” he says, placing his hand on my shoulder. “One of a father’s most important jobs is to feel utterly inept the majority of the time.” “I’m serious, Dad.” “So am I.” He pulls me closer. “It’s different for men. We’re not born with a maternal instinct like women are. We learn to love our children. For the most part, we spend the early days worrying about every possible detail, and how we’ll cope, and what we’ll be like without our freedom…whether we’re capable of looking after, and loving, a small, helpless little person. We’re supposed to be strong and keep calm, but inside, we’re anything but. “But,” he says, looking towards my mother and B at the other end of the store. “It gets easier, and I remember those scans like they were yesterday. It changed something within you, didn’t it?” he continues. “And I’m guessing it terrifies you a little, right?” I nod. “It is getting easier, but…” “You’re still scared?” I nod again. “Dyl, you’ll never lose that fear. There’s always so much to worry about, and as that son of yours gets older, you’ll stay awake at night worried you’re doing a good job, worried he’s safe, worried you’re providing him with everything he needs. “The important thing is, you’re doing great. Every man reacts and learns to deal with all this differently, but those scans help. What you felt in front of that monitor only grows stronger. It’s terrifying in its own right, but soon you’ll hold him and kiss him and feed him. Life changes, but for the better. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand soon enough.” “I don’t know how to do any of those things, like feed him and hold him.” “So?” “And what about money, and a house, and everything else?” “None of it matters.” I shake my head, chest racing out of control. “Look,” he says, placing both his hands around my cheeks. “Deep down, none of that stuff matters. I promise. Besides, your mother and I are here for you. Whenever you need us, we’re here. But believe me, Dyl, you won’t need us. You’ll learn. You’ll pick it up. Before you know it, a crying baby waking you up at five in the morning will feel like the most natural thing in the world.” “I know, but—“ “Look,” he interrupts. “Did I ever tell you about the night I nearly left?” “What are you talking about?” “I didn’t think I did,” he says, sighing. “What night? What do you mean?” He sighs again, leaning on his left leg. “I’m not proud of it, but when your mother was seven months pregnant, I lost it.” He hangs his head. “I loved her so much, but I was terrified everything would change. We were young and free, and travelled when we wished, and I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do with my life. Christ, your mother certainly hadn’t.” He laughs, but doesn’t look at me. “Not all that different to you and B, to be honest." “Anyway, one Tuesday evening I looked out of our small flat's window as rain pounded the glass. Your mother slept on the couch, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, or her giant stomach. The stomach with you inside, the little boy whose heartbeat I cried to. I did love you, but… “I was selfish. I didn’t want to lose who I was, and I didn’t want to lose what your mother and me had, and at that moment I couldn’t imagine what possible use I could be. Without even looking at your mother, I ran into our bedroom, threw some clothes in a bag, and got into our banged-up car. “I drove and drove. Rain lashed down, and the wipers flung from left to right; I had no idea where I was going. I didn’t care. I hated myself. I detested everything about me, and the further I drove, and the harder the rain fell, the more I hated…me…your mother…life…everything. “So, I pulled over and turned off the engine, staring at the water dripping down my windscreen. I didn’t cry or shout. Silently, I sat and took one breath after another, picturing you in your mother’s arms, the hospital bed, nurses and doctors; but I couldn’t see myself there with you, and that’s when I cried.” Shaking his head, he looks at me. “No, I didn’t cry, son. I sobbed. The thought of not being there for you and your mother…the greatest pain I’ve ever known. I said to myself, “Never again.”” Frozen, I stare at my father, the happy guy with a forever positive outlook on life. A guy who not only faltered, but failed. I picture Joey and imagine his mother the day she left, and the thoughts racing through her head. Did she think the same as my father? Did she nearly turn back? Had he not thought about my mother and me in the hospital, would he have kept going? “Does Mum know?” I ask. He nods, looking at the ground once more. “As soon as I got back I woke her up and told her everything. Pleading for forgiveness, I buried my face into her chest, tears streaming.” “What did she say?” “Nothing. She held me, allowed me to unravel and crumble to pieces. She just hushed and whispered sweet nothings into my ear, and we never spoke of it again. Not once.” “Never?” “No. We didn’t have to. I knew I’d never feel like that again. I’m not proud of myself, but I needed to feel like that in order to understand.” “Understand what?” “Everything: fatherhood and unconditional love, and the fact it’s not about ridding yourself of worry, or being perfect, or listening to the books and advice…but of being there and being yourself. All your son will ever want from you is love - your love. You’ll never think you’re good enough, but he doesn’t need perfection. He just needs you.” Hesitating, he kisses my forehead and walks away, wiping his hand across his face as he drifts out of the toy section. Still frozen, I watch him disappear behind a row of white shelves, my strong father who always stands firm and is in control, giving in and falling short when my mother needed him the most. My mother, strong enough to hold him and forgive him and stride forward without questioning him. Where Joey’s mother kept going, he stopped the car and cried, turned it around and came home. He nearly left, but didn’t. For a second, he considered a life without me, but ever since, he’s been there for me. He’s still there for me. Taking a deep breath, I pick up a blue teddy bear and twist it in my hands. I have no idea how to be a good father, but it begins by being here right now, and being there for him, always. AUGUST 25TH - THE RUSH HOUR TRAIN: Book in hand, beads of sweat drip down my forehead and cheeks. Hot and heavy, the air consumes this old train carriage, each long window open but offering little help for me and my fellow helpless commuters. Squeezing onto the train in Leeds, I was unable to find a spare seat, but did manage to hoist myself into the large shelf reserved for bags and suitcases. An ideal size for two people, three of us squish into the tight opening, a tall, blonde woman in a grey suit to my right, and a slim Asian man with dark hair and a dark shirt to my left. Miserable, and in the middle, The Graveyard rests on my lap, each bump of the train forcing me into one or the other of my companions. Unable to lose myself in Neil Gaiman’s fictional land, I sink into a memory of B and me beneath a waterfall in Italy a few years ago. Escaping for a few days to a friend of my parents’ woodland cabin, we explored the local fauna and its many twists and turns. Stumbling across a small waterhole one afternoon, we stripped bare and hid under the falling water, our backs against the rock as the spray soothed our faces. The memory cools me for a second, but like most daydreaming of late, it doesn’t take long for my mind to wander off track. Will we be able to enjoy such romantic getaways in the future? If we do, and find a waterfall nestled away in some luscious woodland, who will watch our son? Would he have to come with us? In which case, how can we strip bare and kiss and grab one another? I sigh, exhausted by my mind’s merry dance between this thought and that. It’s easier today than ever before, though. Each day, easier. Each day, lighter and happier. It took me a while to digest my father’s confession, the pair of us saying little the rest of the afternoon. It hurt, but I took solace in his weakness and confusion. Weak times don’t make me, so long as I don’t allow them to define me. That moment doesn’t define my father or mean he is any less of a man. That night, I lay in bed and imagined a life without B, literally trying to picture another woman. I couldn’t, and when I finally slipped off into sleep, I dreamt about her, sobbing on the end of her bed as I entered her bedroom. “We lost him,” she cried. “I’ve lost him, Aus. He’s gone. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Dashing towards her, I bundled her up in my arms and rocked her from side to side. “It’s okay,” I whispered, regaining my freedom and the life of a few months ago. The panic and fear didn’t leave me, only intensified as I detested it. I hated it. I no longer wanted it, only desiring my little boy. Opening my eyes in a start, I stared up to the ceiling. “Come back,” I said, almost out of breath. “Come back. Where are you?” Struggling to come to terms with where I was, I rolled over and found B fidgeting in half-slumber. I placed my hand on her, and then her tummy, desperate to find her bulge and our son. “It’s okay,” I whispered, panting. “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s a dream. It’s a dream.” I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, watching B and stroking her hair. I didn’t want to imagine a life without her or without our son. I don’t want to. I can’t. The questions and moments of panic remain, but it’s easier. Each day it’s easier…lighter…happier. Slowing, the force of the train pushes me into the blonde woman, the discomfort of touching another person replacing my wayward memories of a few nights ago. The book hops off my lap as the train comes to an eventual stop, the grey-haired conductor opening the doors and bringing a wave of fresh air with it. As a stream of passengers leave the train, a single woman climbs up the steps, heaving a large blue stroller behind her. Settling in the seats in front of me, she guides the stroller until it’s flush against the wall, the little baby inside in view for the first time. On his back, and in nothing but a blue onesie with a pirate on the breast, he kicks his feet in the air and flaps his arms, reaching for a small, red teddy just above him. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have noticed either the woman or the baby, my mind occupied with a book or my music. Each week brings more babies into my life. I’m positive they’ve always been there, but never as prominent as they have of late. Two years ago, a little boy - maybe two or three years-old - came up to me as I drank coffee on my own. Hidden behind my book, I reached for my cup, and there he was, peeking above the spine and paper. Silently, he stared at me, no social boundaries holding him back. Every social boundary held me back, fidgeting and lifting my book to block him from sight. But I knew he remained there…looking at me…burning through me…knowing I had no idea what to do. I don’t know why small children unnerve me, or why they sense my discomfort, but it’s no longer as strong. A few days ago, crossing the street during my lunch break, a young mother stopped beside me as we waited for the lights to change. Glancing down, her daughter looked up at me, in much the same way that boy did two years ago. Gazing into her beautiful blue eyes, I did something I’ve never done before: I smiled. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled at a baby. I didn’t intend to on this occasion, but I did. Instead of fiddling and fidgeting with my phone, I locked my gaze on hers until she departed with her mother amongst the crowd of street-crossing bodies. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, much like I can’t take my eyes off this tiny little boy now. Reaching for his teddy, he gurgles and squeals. Chubby thighs and chubby arms, tiny feet with the tiniest of toes. How can they be so small? How can I, a man so inept in so many ways, create something so perfect and petite as toes like those? My son will soon have toes like that. I suppose he already does, safe and sound in his mummy’s tummy. I wonder where his mother bought that blue onesie with the pirate on the breast, because I want one too. Imagine, a whole set of blue clothes with pirate ships and diggers, racing cars and electric guitars. If only his stroller was closer, I’d see the colour of his eyes. Are they blue or brown or green? I wonder what it’s like to touch feet so small, or kiss a newborn cheek like my father told me about. I’ve never held a baby, not really. I want to. I need to. I soon will do. The train continues to rumble, the clitter-clatter of metal on metal, the ‘swoosh’ of air battering the glass. So many people surround me, the air still heavy and damp. I should remain miserable like before, but I don’t. I’m fixated on this little boy and his pursuit of a teddy just out of reach. Maybe my own little bundle will look like this? I could bring him on trains, too, and enjoy father-son outings to Leeds. “Come on, kiddo,” I’ll say. “Are you ready to go on your first train journey?” Crouching down at Sowerby Bridge station, I place my finger amid his tight grip. “This is the train Daddy catches every day,” I’ll continue, rubbing his soft nose with my little finger. Staring up at me, he recognises my face, and understands I’m an important part of his life, but who am I? Why am I always around? What makes me important? As we go into a tunnel, the train darkens for a few seconds before escaping back into the light. I close my eyes and picture B, facing me in bed as our son nestles between us. In nothing but a white vest, he kicks his legs and arms, gurgling as he focuses above. Stroking her finger up and down his arm, much like she does with mine, I lay on my side and watch. It’s not even a memory, not at all real, but I love it. I love the moment and the peace. A family. My family. Alone and safe in bed, surrounded by a world that doesn’t matter, because all that does is us. Hiding under another tunnel, the carriage goes dark, this passage longer than before. The little baby hides among his stroller, only his red teddy on show. The rattle grows, as does the shaking from side to side. The whoosh of cool air spills into the carriage, cooling me and soothing me, and in an instant it’s light again and there’s that little boy. Perfect. Beautiful. His father awaits him, his pride and joy. Soon, it’ll be me. I’m ready. I am. SEPTEMBER 10TH - THE PUB: The last of summer clings to the air; cloudy skies above and damp ground below. Still mild and pleasant, the sun soothes when it escapes from behind a cloud. A reminder it isn’t winter yet, but that summer’s no more. Some people, in some countries, look forward to autumn and its crisp, refreshing touch, although I can’t understand why anyone in Yorkshire would. Maybe after months of intense heat and scorching sunlight, grey clouds are a relief. Maybe if my walk to the train station involved crisp leaves underfoot, I’d smile. With the leaves soggy and decomposing, and the air too cool too soon, summer’s already a longing memory. Sitting at a table in front of the floor-to-ceiling blue shutter doors, I lean on my elbow and search outside the pub. A few weeks ago the benches and stone walls overflowed with people. For once, we received a summer of sorts, a proper summer, the first real summer in years. Each day, beer garden crowds basked in the warmth, sipping beer and lounging in shorts. I long to head back in time and experience it again, for it passed in a flash. Too fleeting, as I stressed and worried, focusing on my troubles instead of that around me. By the time I escaped my burden, the weather had already turned. Each sunny morning offers hope, but I know how September plays out. Like its juxtaposed twin, March, each glimpse of summer drowns in drizzle and increasing winds. No matter how the day begins, I leave the house with my blue anorak. I don’t trust the weather otherwise, having been stranded in showers far too often. It doesn’t seem to rain, rather exist in the air. Even now, gazing out of the pub window, the damp ground indicates the wet stuff, although I don’t see any fall; tiny, invisible spray spitting in your face from all directions. I sigh. “Summer’s well and truly over, isn’t it?” “Afraid so,” B says, half hidden behind her menu. Rushing past, a couple in matching red jackets dash towards the entrance, pushing through the heavy doors and heading straight for Harriet, who mans the bar on her lonesome. Surrounded by several regulars I don’t know the names of, but have spoken to countless times before, she strides back and forth, topping up their pints and mopping up their mess. I take a sip from my own pint, facing B in a bid to forget how depressing outside is. From here, she doesn’t look pregnant. With the same neck, face, shoulders, and arms, it’s hard to understand how a little person lives within her. Below the table’s another story, a bulging bump resting out of sight. No longer a secret from anyone, but no longer news either. “I’m starving,” she says, her pupils darting back and forth. “Do you know what you’re having?” “The usual.” “Of course,” she continues. “What a silly question.” I smile and reach for her arm. “Nothing else comes close to the haloumi and hummus.” “How would you know?” “I’ve had other things in here.” “When?” “Long ago,” I say, hooking my index finger around hers. “It was all terrible.” She rolls her eyes, placing the menu on the table. “The food here is not terrible.” “The haloumi and hummus isn’t.” “You’re terrible.” “But you love me.” Biting her lip, she picks her menu back up. “I do wonder, sometimes.” “Ouch. I hope you don’t say such horrible words when Little Man arrives.” “I’ll let him judge for himself.” I smile, grabbing her hand once again and glancing over her shoulder. Smiling and laughing feels natural again, my mind no longer swarming with doubt and unease. I still worry. Just this morning I awoke with a start, for some reason thinking about baby monitors and whether I’d know if he stops breathing in the middle of the night. Yet it passes by, because before long I picture him in my arms and know we’ll figure it out. It’s what people do, after all. “Where’s this sudden confidence come from?” Joey asked last week, a few tables across from where I am now. “I’ve no idea what you mean,” I said, flipping through a book of baby names. “Your smile, for one. You’re reading a baby book. Yet you grin like it’s porn.” “You grin when watching porn?” “That’s none of your business.” “Your sex life is none of my business for once? Good to know.” “Porn is not sex. Porn is porn. Porn has its place in the world, but what goes on there stays in here,” he said, pointing to his head. “And don’t change the subject.” “Nothing happened,” I said, underlining the name Dalton. “I feel good. Everything feels good at the minute.” “Why now? Something must have happened.” “I need to have a reason for feeling good?” “Considering a couple of weeks ago you were verging on suicide.” “I was not suicidal.” “I was worried.” “No, you weren’t.” “I was. I thought about calling The Samaritans or writing a letter to the local paper.” “You going to help me choose names or not?” “Hell, no. What do I care if you call your kid Bob or Darren?” “Two terrible names.” Tapping his finger on the table, he coughed. “Bob Dylan, brother. You know, the guy you’re half named after.” “Oh,” I considered, flicking back to the Bs. “Anyway, enough names. Come on, what happened to make you happy?” “Nothing.” I sighed. “It’s not like there was a single moment or anything. Things are just easier. I’m not worrying as much. I’m actually excited to meet him, and each new day brings the day closer.” “Yeah? That’s it?” “Yeah.” I closed the book and placed it on the table. “Anyhow, why are you so bothered? You hate all this baby nonsense.” “It isn’t nonsense.” “That’s what you said last week.” “When?” “Right here,” I said, pointing to the table next to us. “Regardless, it isn’t nonsense. I mean, it is to me, but I suppose you have to enjoy it to an extent. Or, at least, pretend to. But I do care about you, and my job as your best friend - and let’s face it, only friend - is to take an interest in your life.” “But not my baby’s?” “Exactly.” Rolling my eyes again, I picked up the book and tossed it in his direction. “It’s just a bunch of little stuff, that’s all. Like not freaking out when I see a baby on the train; reading books and focusing long enough to actually understand what they say; and sleeping at night, and when I do, not dreaming about eating my damn offspring.” “That’s good.” I nod. “I don’t know why or what’s happened. Maybe this is how it is for fathers. All I know is this…I feel much lighter at the moment.” “Yeah?” “I feel human again.” “You look human again,” he said, lifting his pipe from his blue blazer pocket. “And most important of all, this is exactly what I said would happen, which means once again I’m right.” Chewing the end of the pipe, he smiled. “That’s reason to celebrate.” “You’re an idiot.” “A correct idiot,” he said. “I suppose B can now forget about protecting you and become a hormonal, crazy person. Fun times.” “Yeah, fun times indeed,” I said. Spinning my glass in my palm, I watch her study the menu, screwing up her nose and tilting her head from one side to the other. “I think I’ll have the soup. What do you think?” she says, not looking at me. “What do I think about you eating soup?” “Yes. Good choice?” “Sure. I mean, it’s no haloumi and hummus, but each to their own.” She shakes her head. “You truly are useless.” “In a good way, right?” She places her menu on the table and falls back into her chair. “Where’s Joseph? It’s not like I’m pregnant and starving. He couldn’t be on time just this once?” “We can order without him.” “Oh no, I wouldn’t dream of it,” she says, rubbing her bulging tummy and pursing her lips. “How are you feeling?” I ask. “You tired? We can go home if you like.” “I’m fine,” she says, running her fingers through her fringe. “Just hungry.” “Should I order? Honestly, we don’t have to wait for Joey.” “I’m fine. Let’s wait,” she says, her voice quiet. “You sure?” She nods. “You’re getting quite the appetite, aren’t you?” “I know. At this rate I may develop an arse.” “It’s a shame you can’t go for a run and work it all off.” “Don’t remind me. I miss it so much. I hate feeling so heavy and tired.” “I know, but I’m sure you’d be okay if you took it easy.” “That’s not how I run. You know I like to go fast.” “I know you do. Still, I do quite like the idea of you having a big arse. And big, fatty arms. And chunky thighs.” “Stop it,” she says. “I don’t want to be fat all over. I feel heavy enough as it is, and the bigger I get the harder it is to run at all.” “At this rate, you may become a mountain of a girl.” “You, mister, are terrible.” She glares at me, but with a soft smile. Although not quite how we used to be, this feels normal. Our chatter’s back, as is the comfortable silence that lingers between us. I don’t feel like a stranger around her anymore, and although we may never retrieve what we had, this is fine, because we’ll evolve into who we need to be. Maybe Joey’s right, that clinging on is why I hurt for so long; why I lost myself in confusion and fear. I clung on to something that was already gone, past tense slipping past us each day, for it’s who we are today, and who we become tomorrow that counts. Not much changes, because we are who we are, only snippets of everyday shifts in life. Like last week, as we searched a quaint odds-and-ends shop. Something we’ve done countless times before, but rather than head to the railings of clothes and boxes of dusty vinyl, we slipped into the corner of baby-whatevers. With a shelf full of baby’s first spoons, forks, and tiny glass bottles; frames of varying types, some made of wood, others from glass; and tiny hats and doodads; we fawned over everything, not wanting to buy for the sake of our son, but to fulfil our own cute fancies. Picking up a small white vest with the words ‘I Love My Mummy and Daddy’ across the chest, I slid my fingertips over its smooth fabric. I flipped it over, reading ‘Baby ‘Your Name Here’’ written at the top, and instead of laughing and condemning such nonsense, I turned to B and smiled. “Have you seen this?” I said, handing it to her. “That’s too damn cute.” “Right? What’s happened to us?” “Us? What’s happened to you?” Stepping into her, I wrapped my hands around her bigger than usual waist. “Is this what it’s like from here on in? I’ll forever want to buy useless crap, all so I can dress our son in adorable tat.” “I do believe that’s what happens,” she said. “Should we get it?” “Really?” she asked, eyeing me with an air of suspicion. “Why not? He has to come home from the hospital in something, right?” “This is true.” Taking the vest back, I stared at the line of text decked across the shoulder. “Baby Ashford,” I said. “Just think, soon we’ll be a family of Ashfords.” She stepped into me and held my hand. “Come on. We need to get going.” “Where to?” “We’ve got loads to get from the supermarket, and I’m feeling tired. Can we get this another day?” “Sure,” I said, gripping her palm tight. “You still going to try and go for a run?” “I don’t know.” She sighed. “I want to, but I’ve no energy. It’s driving me mad.” “I know. Let’s get home, maybe you’ll feel better.” “Yeah, maybe…” We continue to do the same things and visit the same places, but with a new outlook and spin on life. Walking through Sowerby Bridge a few days ago, along the same piece of road I venture down almost every morning, I stopped and looked at a for sale sign. “We should take a look at this place,” I said, B stood by my side. “What do you mean? The flat?” “It’s an ideal location for us, don’t you think?” Hesitating, she shook her head. “Not really. Along a busy road like this…and at weekends, when everyone piles out of that place,” she said, pointing to the bar across the road. “Plus, I’m not sure I want to bring my son up in a flat. Little boys need gardens to run around in.” “True,” I said, searching the second storey window, picturing our future home on the other side. “But it’d be a start. Maybe in the short term a place like this will work.” She stroked my upper arm. “Maybe. I suppose we can have a look.” “Yeah?” “Sure.” “Okay, I’ll call them in the morning,” I said. An hour later, we sat on a bench by the canal, B nestled into my side, wrapped in her blue and purple jacket. Rubbing my hand up and down her thigh, I lost myself in the sound of the birds, chirping and singing as evening drew near. Peeking above the treetops, the sun crept through the occasional break in the branches and leaves, half our bench glowed in the still warm light as the other half vanished into shadows. A family of five strolled by, the father pushing a stroller with a sleeping baby inside, and the mother surrounded by two young boys as they skipped by her side. “That’ll be us soon,” I whispered, kissing B on the cheek. “Taking Little Man for a walk along the canal.” “Oh, yeah,” she said, her tone relaxed and sleepy. “Only one to contend with, though.” I chuckled. “At least for now.” “For now?” she said, raising her head. “Who knows how good I’ll be at this ‘daddy’ game? We may end up with a whole team of little boys.” “Is that so?” she laughed. “Maybe. Plus, we might need to even things out with a girl. Can you imagine how cute a little B would be? Who wouldn’t want that?” “Hmm. This girl for a start.” “We’ll see. I bet you’ll beg me to impregnate you again.” I smiled and nudged her. “We’ll see. Anyway, make yourself useful and read to me for a bit.” “I can do that. What would you prefer: Hemingway or Gaiman? “Gaiman, please.” Draining the final drops from my pint glass, I slouch and watch a group of rowdy lads take it in turns to order drinks. As Harriet tends to each - rolling her eyes after every exchange - she stares at the doorway and straightens her shoulders before dashing into the kitchen behind her. Following her eyes, I find Joey at the door as he slips his grey dinner jacket off and reveals two tattooed forearms; both shirtsleeves rolled tight to his elbows. Loosening his top button he searches the room and catches me, breaking into a smile and walking towards our table. “My brother, how are you?” he says, scooping up a stool and placing it by my chair. “You ordered yet?” “Not yet. This one,” I say, pointing to B. “Is starving. I suggest you choose before she lurches at you.” “You wouldn’t lurch at me, would you?” he says, twisting to face her. “Don’t anger a pregnant woman, Joseph. It isn’t a smart thing to do.” “Is that so? Well, there’s another reason to never have kids…or a girlfriend…or anything beyond a two-week fling.” Taking his pipe from his jacket’s inner pocket, he taps it on the table. “I know what I’m having. Shall we order?” “You two are so boring,” she says, arms crossed against her tummy. “Me? Boring? Are you high, B?” “You’re just like him,” she says, pointing at me. “You order the same thing every time.” “I know what I like.” “That’s what I said,” I say. “Besides, the food here’s adequate at best.” “I like the food here,” I say, reaching for B’s menu and stacking it on top of mine. “It’s decent,” he says. “Hardly mind blowing.” “Either way,” B says, grabbing his menu and handing it to me. “You should both try something new from time to time.” Joey shakes his head and sighs. “Is this what it’s like?” “Like what is like?” B interrupts. “Marriage,” he counters, smirk and all. “Oh, I’m sorry, I must have forgotten about my wedding day.” He laughs, standing up and looking towards the bar. “As good as, Mrs Ashford. As good as.” “Shut up and order.” “I’m going. I’m going.” He continues to search the bar. “Now, where’s my lovely Harriet…” “Just because we’re having a baby together, doesn’t mean we’re getting married,” B continues, folding her arms tighter across her chest. “Well, well, well,” Joey says, crouching beside her. “Looks like I hit a nerve. Have you heard this, Aus? Sounds like you’re bringing up a bastard child.” “Leave her alone,” I say. “She’s hungry and pregnant and hasn’t gone for a run in ages. It isn’t a good mix, and when you add you into the equation…” “Excuse me?” she says, huffing and puffing. Settling back on his stool, Joey taps his fingers on the table. “I just love how she’s so against marrying you. I mean, I get it—“ “Shut up,” I counter. “That isn’t what she meant.” “You sure about that, brother?” “Don’t worry, you’ll have your pick of the bridesmaids soon enough.” “Now, I like the sound of that. I’ve never associated weddings with girls before, but come to think about it…” “And single malt whisky…” “And good cake…” “The food in general…” “Damn, you two should get married as soon as possible.” I laugh, straightening the menus and rising to my feet. “Excuse me,” B stutters, shaking her head. “Can we stop talking about weddings and order food instead?” “Aren’t girls supposed to love wedding talk?” says Joey, winking at her. “Joseph, I swear to—“ “Okay. Okay. I’m going. What are you having?” he asks. “Soup.” “Got it. I’ll be right back.” As he walks to the bar, I sit down and laugh again. “You can stop it, too,” she says. “He’s just trying to wind you up. Like he always does.” “He’s an idiot. You’re both idiots.” “I’m—“ “No, you’re done.” She halts me, holding up her palm. I half hide my smile and pick up my glass, consuming the still cool beer inside. Maybe this is the time for B to unload her woes and worries and all, but it’s fine, for I’m here for her, like she’s been here for me. Glancing outside again, I notice the pitter-patter of rain against the glass, a further reminder that summer’s no more. Another chapter over, a new season awaits, and with it, a tomorrow I’ve dreamed of, and which I’m finally ready to live. SEPTEMBER 26TH - B’s ROOM: The smell of incense lingers in the air, my tired eyes fighting to stay awake. The outside bright, light flows through the window above the bed. I lay next to B, my arm hooked under and around her. The Tallest Man on Earth plays over the speakers, a playlist we created in her old dorm-room a few winters ago. The strumming and twang soothes me, aligned with the scent, in a bid to relax my body and mind. I remember falling asleep in this bed before we were old enough to make the most out of it. Kissing and cuddling and talking long into the night, our teenage years were split equally between here and my parents’ house. A familiar home, but never homely. I know her mother, but not in the sense I know her. Always pleasant and kind, but eager to escape into her lonesome seclusion. Even this afternoon, she left the room as soon as I turned my back to pour a drink. I don’t know why she avoids me, although I sense it has little to do with me. She seems distant around others, more comfortable in her own thoughts. I don’t blame her, although I fear B does at times. I watch the pair of them talk but not, an awkward daily skit on repeat for as long as I’ve known them. A true talker, but around her mother…she sinks into herself. Her mother, more so. Maybe becoming a grandmother will bring her closer to us, and bridge whatever gap exists between the two of them. Soon, this won’t be a house, but our son’s grandmother’s house. A real home, because it has to be, a place we’ll spend Christmases and birthdays and family gatherings. I imagine it was hard for B’s mother, like it was for Joey’s father, losing the man she loved at a time she needed him the most. She doesn’t show it often, but I know B misses him; to an extent, it affected how she grew up, without that figure in her life; robbed of something no mother can replicate. Her mother, pressured into being two when she could only ever be one. It must have strained them, and I struggle seeing B and her mother stood next to each other, sharing so many qualities and features, yet so different as people. The same hair, same eyes, the way they both cock out their hips when they cook. There’s a certain way B acts around her: a distant and quiet tone; a different smile; a wayward stare that darts around the room. Where she hones in on my eyes she seems unable to lock on her mother’s, but maybe our son will change this. Make this house a home. Make our family whole. But this room…B’s room…our room…already feels like home, as much as my own does. We built it together, adorning the walls with posters of bands; pictures of me, painted by B; and sketches of her, from my own teenage hand. The marker pen beside her dresser drawers, celebrating the night we saw Neil Young live; a hand-holding silhouette in black ink. We lost our virginity in this bed. I read Perks of Being a Wallflower to her, cover to cover, as she rested her head in my lap. She told me she loved me for the first time, sitting on her desk littered with notebooks and photographs. I remember her quivering lips like it was yesterday, the way the words escaped her in a slow hush. We probably spent as much time in my room as this one, but it feels like we grew up here. Maybe our son will sleep here when he stays with Grandma, or maybe she’ll sell it so another teenage couple can discover themselves. “You okay?” I ask, stroking her fringe away from her eyes. I inhale another breath of incense, my eyes heavier still. “Yeah. Are you?” “Sleepy.” “You should take a nap.” “Just the music, is all. His voice always chills me out.” “Me too.” “Remember when we created this playlist?” “Yeah.” “It’s strange,” I say. “In a way it seems like yesterday. Yet at the same time, long ago.” “Yeah.” Pushing up, she slides further along my chest. “At school, time seemed to crawl by so slowly, yet ever since we left, it’s been a blur. As soon as we went to uni, that was it. The outside world speeds everything up.” “I know what you mean. It’s hard to recall everything that’s happened these last few years, but growing up in this room…I was just thinking of all the firsts we’ve experienced here.” She imparts a gentle, hushed laugh. “Oh, yes. If these walls could talk…” “I’ll miss it.” I take another deep breath. “I guess it’s time to find a new place to create our next bunch of firsts.” “Yeah, I guess.” I tighten my grip and squeeze her into me. Kissing her head, the smell of incense and B intermingle, undertones of coconut and honey mixed with harsher tastes of cinnamon and all-spice. Looking into the mirror balanced on the white table I used to write on, and where B draws dresses and the beginnings of future designs, I focus on the picture stuck to its frame: the two of us at fourteen, wrapped up in each other’s jackets. That lazy afternoon in the park, Joey stood over us as we lay on my tartan blanket. Laughing, he wasted an entire roll of film on B’s vintage camera, but hidden away in the middle was a single, perfect shot of us. It seemed to define us. Two people ideal for one another. Our skin tones and shadows, smiles and eyes; B, so much prettier and picturesque; next to her, I’m alive. So long ago. So much that has happened since. Exams and degrees and pregnancies. I’m taller, she’s bigger; we’re both more rounded and less awkward in our bodies. Different hair and matured faces, but everything the same. I love this picture, always have. I used to look at it as she put on her makeup, insisting nothing would ever change. Me and B, fourteen forever. Perfect companions. An ideal contradiction. “I love you,” I whisper, lips hovering above her ear. “Me too,” she says. “I mean it,” I continue, straightening my back against the old bed’s frame. “Not like we usually say it. I truly, irrationally, scares-me-to-death, love you. And I’m sorry for putting you through so much this summer.” “Aus, it’s fine. We’ve already talked—“ “I mean it. I love you, B.” Removing my arm from around her neck, I slide to my knees and face her. “I wasn’t there when you needed me the most. I was scared and didn’t know how to react, but I do now. I’m so happy where we are. I just know, together, we’ll be okay. I know I’ve not always shown it, but I’m so happy we’ll meet our son soon. Our family. I’ve always wanted this. I just need you to know I love you, and I’m happy.” I place my hands in her palms. “I promise I won’t let you down. I won’t. I promise.” She glances to the mirror and sits up. “I know. You don’t have to say all this, I know already.” My stomach tenses, as do the muscles around my neck and shoulders. I remember the time we stayed up all night, talking about art and books and music. I lay on this bed as she bounced around her room, picturing herself living other people’s lives. Future versions of us, where anything and everything was possible. We’re in tomorrow today, and everything is possible. “I love you,” I repeat, tightening my grip around her hands. “So much.” “I know you do.” “More than anything,” I continue, kneeling before her knees. “Aus, you’re starting to freak me out. Let’s just listen to some music.” “Don’t,” I say, lifting both our hands. “I’ll always love you and I always have. But until now…” I sigh, closing my eyes to calm my thoughts. “I guess I’ve never understood how much I need you; how much I need this, but I do. I can’t imagine life without you, B.” I look at her tummy, our son resting, waiting for us. “The moment I saw you, I knew you were different. You made me feel different. I’ve always felt different around you; better and stronger and braver. As soon as I kissed you, I knew I’d never let go, and I haven’t. I can’t. And I know we didn’t plan this, but this…” I say, glancing between her face and stomach. “This is the plan. This has always been the plan. “I want to marry you, B. I want us to be a real family. A whole family. Marry me. Please. Let me spend the rest of my life showing you how much you mean to me.” I plotted and planned this moment growing up. Within my teenage mind, I perfected it to the minutest detail, hiding the ring somewhere special, surprising her at a time she suspected but not, and ensuring the memory became enshrined between us so we could treasure it forever. Not like this. Not on a normal night in a normal bed, with no ring or carefully crafted poem. This isn’t right, but it’s the right moment, for I couldn’t keep the words in. They wanted to break free as soon as I first held her hand, laying patiently somewhere deep within me, waiting for their moment to surge to the surface. Not gradual or planned, but an eruption of everything I have to give. My shoulders relax and my neck eases, a longing sigh hissing free. There’s no doubt she’ll say yes, for she has to say yes, she needs to. Together, we’re perfect, alone, we’re incomplete. I’ve considered this moment so many times, and not once does she say no. So, why does she wait? Why does she look at me like this, instead of smiling and bundling herself into me? Why do my shoulders tense again, and my neck follow suit with each torturous second? Five seconds…a minute…an hour, I can’t tell. Time pauses, awaiting her move. She looks at me, but with those darting pupils reserved for her mother. Parting lips, I see her mouth, but not like when she smiles. “Marry me?” she whispers, closing her eyes. “Marry me?” she repeats, gritting her teeth. “Aus, did you just ask me to marry you?” I nod, holding my breath as my chest thumps and thumps. “Why?” she removes her hands from my numb palms, wiping them across her forehead. “Why would you ask me to marry you?” she continues, her voice low and in control. “This is insane. Like we don’t have enough to worry about already,” she says, more to herself than to me. “Why would you ask me that, Aus?” “I…I…I don’t know,” I stutter. “I love you. I love you so much, B, and we’re having a baby together, and I can’t think of anything that would make me happier than marrying you.” My throat dry, I rub my own forehead, unsure how or why I’m having to answer a question right now. “I don’t understand why I wouldn’t ask you to marry me. We’re happy. We love each other. We’re having a son.” Pushing herself further away from me, she sits flush against the wall with her legs bundled into her arms. “Do you not think we have enough to worry about without a wedding too? It’s bad enough you don’t stop talking about finding a house, but marriage…” “We don’t have to get married now, or even think about it. It makes sense, right? Don’t you think it makes sense to get engaged?” “To who? Your parents?” “What have my parents got to do with this? I want to marry you because I love you, B.” I scrunch the bedsheets in my hands, scratching them and balling them into fists. “I just want us to be a family.” “We are a family. We don’t need to get married in order to be a family.” “I know we don’t, but…this is what people do.“ “What people? Not everyone is like your parents, Aus. You might like the idea of a happy-ever-after existence, but it doesn’t exist in the real world. Your parents are the exception, not the bloody rule.” Swallowing a breath, I fold my arms and hold myself tightly. “I don’t know why you keep mentioning my parents. This has nothing to do with them.” “The hell it does. Your father can’t wait to get us married. He probably wants to walk me down the aisle, seen as I don’t have anyone else to.” I’m empty. Light-headed with a heavy head, I struggle to stay upright. “B, how could you say that? My father loves you, but he’d never expect anything—“ “Marriage is part of your plan, Aus. Not mine,” she says, her tone marred with bitterness and disdain. I’ve never heard her like this, not when we argue or drunkenly fight. Each syllable shoots me down. “I’ve never once said I want to get married. Just because I’m pregnant doesn’t change that. Just because it’s what ‘everyone else’ does doesn’t change it, either. We’re together. Nothing has to change.” She stands up and springs off the bed, striding towards the mirror and her old white desk. “I don’t know what to say,” I stutter again, my throat dry and coarse. “I know you’ve never spoken highly about marriage, but I never thought you felt like this. This isn’t you, B. I’ve never seen—“ “This is me. I’m telling you how I feel, Aus. If you don’t want to listen to me that’s your problem. Not mine.” “Okay,” I sigh. “Let’s start again. I’m confused right now, and—“ “No, Aus,” she shouts. “No. You think you know me and know what I want, but you clearly don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t propose to me in my fucking bedroom. Don’t you think I have enough to worry about? Do you really feel the need to own me? Don’t you trust me? Does marrying me make you feel like a man? Does it make you feel worthy, Aus?” “What the hell are you talking about?” I say, anger bubbling to the surface. “And what do you mean, I don’t know you? I know you, B. I don’t know what this is all about, so how about we stop before we say something we can’t take back?” “You clearly don’t, because if you did, you wouldn’t feel the need to pressure me into marriage and houses, and happy little families and stupid ideals. And stop before we say something we can’t take back? I think it’s a little late for that. You’ve already said far too much.” I take a few steps toward her and the picture of the two of us when we were fourteen, happy and perfect as one. “Please, can we just calm down for a few minutes? We’re both stressed and—“ “Shut up,” she screams, throwing the jewellery box I bought her for her nineteenth birthday. It crashes against the wall by the door, its ringing clash forcing shivers up my spine. “This isn’t about hormones or anything like that. I swear, Aus, if that’s the next thing that comes out of your mouth, I’ll kill you.” Tensing her fists, she sticks out her chest and straightens her back. “Would you like to know what a stressful time was? You acting like a precious little child for weeks on end, abandoning me when I needed you the most. You said it yourself, right? You think proposing makes up for that? You think a bunch of empty promises matter? How can I trust you? Why would I?” “B…” I whisper, my eyes aching and prickling around the edges. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I shouldn’t have asked you right now. Not after the last few months. Not now. I didn’t plan to, I just…I’m sorry, let’s talk about this properly.” She relaxes, dropping her shoulders and easing her chest. Closing her eyes, she sighs. The light flows through the open window, casting half her face in intense sunlight, and the other in a shadowed silhouette. She’s still B. My B. A familiar B, but one I’ve never seen. “I think you should go,” she says. “I can’t leave like this,” I say, stepping towards her again. “Let’s make a cup of tea and talk.” “Aus, I think you should—“ “I can’t. I can’t leave like this. I love you and we’re having a son together, and—“ “My son,” she interrupts. “He’s my son.” “I know, B,” I say, rubbing my palms over my eyes. “I’ve seen him in your tummy, remember?” “You don’t understand,” she sighs, sitting on her desk and shaking her head. “What don’t I understand?” She looks at me, pursing her lips and taking a deep breath. “He isn’t yours.” “That’s not funny. Don’t even joke about—“ “I’m not. It’s the truth. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep pretending to be the girl you want me to be. I thought I could, but how can I when you insist on pushing?” “What the hell are you talking about?” I say, stepping back and moving towards the door. My head swims, the blood inside painful as it taints me with its poison. “This isn’t funny, B. What the hell are you talking about?” I yell, my breath short and stilted. “Don’t yell at me, Aus.” “Never mind don’t yell, what the hell are you talking about?” She sighs again, but doesn’t stare at me, rather through me. “You’re not the father. He isn’t yours. I think deep down you know you’re not.” My knees buckle as I reach for the door handle to keep me upright. “What the hell does that mean? I’m the father, B. I’m his fucking father. I’ve no idea why you’re doing this, but—” “I wasn’t going to tell you because we love each other, and I thought we could be happy.” “Are you insane? What the hell is happening right now? You can’t just tell me I’m not the father. If I’m not the father, who is?” “Does it matter?” “Of course it matters,” I shout, slamming my hand against the door, my fingers throbbing as the pain rumbles up my arm. “You’re acting like this isn’t a big deal, but—“ “I told you not to shout. And I also said you should leave, but would you listen?” Swallowing a breath, I fall silent. So calm, so nonchalant; so precise and in control of her words, as though everything she says is true. But this can’t be true, for I know he’s my son. I know B, not this version standing before me, but the real B. The B I love and have loved ever since I laid eyes on her. This is a dream, some regretful nightmare I’ll soon wake up from. A terror I’ll escape by rolling over, share with her and watch her laugh as she reassures me everything’s fine; that everything will always be fine. “Think about it, Aus.” She refuses to look at me. “You know he isn’t yours.” “Stop it. Stop saying that,” I squeak, my words shaking through my jaw. “Are you telling me you don’t remember our little bet?” “What are you talking about?” “We didn’t have sex for six weeks.” “So, that was months ago. It has nothing to do with this.” Exhaling, she closes her eyes. “Do the math, Aus. You aren’t an idiot. Deep down, you knew, and I love you for pushing it further down and not focusing on it, but deep down…you knew. You know he isn’t yours.” “No. You’re wrong. That stupid bet was in—“ “March and April.” “No,” I yell. “It wasn’t. It was earlier. Earlier in the year.” She shakes her head, mumbling something under her breath. “It was, B. It was in…January…or February…but it wasn’t in March—“ “Then why is this letter from you dated March 30th?” She tosses a battered envelope at me. Peeking out of the envelope, paper from my notepad, and my handwriting scratched across the top. March 30th On the train home - horny and wanting you “No…it was earlier. It was…” “Just leave, Aus.” “I can’t… I…” I look at her, blurred and distorted through my tearful gaze. This isn’t my B. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m a father-to-be, and one who’s in love with his son within her tummy. This letter is wrong. What she says is wrong. “Please,” I stutter, but into nothing but silence. SEPTEMBER 27TH - JOEY’S PLACE: I awoke this morning in a sweat, pushing my arms forward and twisting my neck in search of something that wasn’t there. Startled by a bike, I think, I woke up from a deep sleep to a panicked state in an instant. No stirring. No gentle light. No soothing few seconds before realisation kicked in. Like a hangover but worse, everything from last night seemed hazy and untouchable. “He’s okay, I suppose,” says Joey, talking on the phone. He strides back and forth, behind his sleek kitchen counter. Black and shiny, it lines one wall and swoops out towards the living room, resembling a taut sail in the wind. Three spotlights illuminate him in a glow, the rest of the open-planned room dimmed and darkened. I’m not sure what time it is, or if it’s a day or more since B destroyed me. The light fades, like my heart and hope. The street lights, twenty-some floors below, twinkle to life. I used to love sitting in his apartment, watching the evening descend into night. Leeds suits the darkness, our old university library blossoming in an amber glow in the distance. I used to sit, beer in hand, and watch the skyline like some watch TV. “I don’t know yet. He’s pretty shook up,” he continues, glancing at me. He found me a couple of hours ago, sitting outside his impressive home, a building he’d visit whilst the builders built it, determined to live here one day. I can’t remember everything. It’s all a haze. The shouting…the crying…the knots and tension consuming my stomach. At some point I left and walked and walked and walked until I fell asleep, I suppose. Waking up beside the canal, frozen all over, I sobbed. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life, not even as a child. My mother said how content I was as a baby. “I hope he’s like you,” she said a few weeks ago. “You rarely cried or grew frustrated. You smiled and laughed and observed everything.” Last night I cried. This morning I cried. Every time I close my eyes, I see him…think of her…long for us…and I cry. “I’ll take care of him,” Joey says, slumped against the black counter. “I’ll make sure he calls you later.” Placing the phone by his overpriced microwave, he moves around the counter and picks up his favourite bottle of bourbon. Void of clutter and utensils, the only items on top of the flawless countertop are whisky bottles and shot glasses. He upends one and pours the good stuff into it, almost throwing it down his throat. “Drink?” he asks. I don’t reply. He picks up the bottle and opens a cupboard, collecting a few glasses. He walks towards me and the old chair that used to belong to his grandfather. Out of place next to the black sofas and glass coffee table, it’s one of the few things he brought with him from home. “You okay?” he asks, sliding a glass towards me. “I mean, I know you’re not okay, but…” He takes a deep breath. “Tell me what happened.” “I told you,” I whisper, my throat dry. “I know you did, but there has to be more to it.” I shake my head. “If there is, I don’t know what.” I look at him, his blue eyes not quite as blue as normal “What did my dad say?” “Not much. He’s worried. He wants you to go home.” “I can’t. Not yet.” “I know. I said you’d call him, though.” “I don’t have my phone. I think I threw it into the canal,” I say, recalling a snippet of last night as I tossed the chunk of plastic into the water. “The canal?” I nod. “I can’t call her if I don’t have a phone.” “Understandable. So, you walked along the canal all night?” I shrug. “Were you drunk?” “I don’t know. I don’t think so. It all seems like a bad dream. Like none of it’s real.” He comes to sit next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder. “It’s okay. We’ll figure this out.” “What’s to figure out? He isn’t mine. Apparently, she isn’t the girl I thought I knew.” “It doesn’t make any sense,” he sighs. “There has to be more to it. Maybe she was just hormonal and needed to vent.” “Who’d lie about something like this?” “I know, but she’s pregnant and her hormones are all over the place. Maybe she snapped and lost it. Don’t they call it baby brain, or something?” “You weren’t there,” I say, rubbing my thumbs. “She was in control of everything she said. It was all so matter-of-fact.” “But there has to—“ “Joey,” I say, raising my voice. “She told me our son wasn’t mine and that she fucked someone else. That’s it. She wouldn’t tell me who. Or why. Or where. Or when. She ripped my heart out of my chest, and told me to leave. That’s it. That’s all there is to say.” “Okay,” he groans, grabbing a cushion and holding it against his chest. “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to figure all this out. It makes no sense.” “I know,” I whisper, my tender eyes aching and struggling to stay open. I lift my half empty glass and place it to my lips, sipping its harsh elixir. “So, she just told you and made you leave? Nothing else?” “Pretty much. I tried to ask her questions, but she refused to answer any of them. She just blamed everything on me.” “I don’t understand how she could blame you. For what?” I recall last night and her room, and her face that wasn’t her face. The way she propped herself on her desk, arms folded, as though protecting our son from me. Her son. A little boy I love, but can’t. “Please, B,” I said, pleading for her to explain. “If I’m not the father, who is?” “It doesn’t matter,” she said, gritting her teeth and looking away. “Of course it matters. We’ve been together since we were kids. We were happy. We tell each other everything, so what you’re saying makes no sense. When did you cheat on me? Why? Please, just help me understand this.” “You should go.” “I can’t.” “You have to. There’s nothing else to say. You’re not the father, and I think it’s obvious this will never be the same again. I’ll always love you, but I’ve never been able to give you the love you expect. You ask for too much, Aus. I can’t do it anymore.” She didn’t cry. She didn’t shake or tremble. So matter-of-fact. So definitive. Calm, collected, and in control, she shattered me and battered me, threw me to the floor and sent me out into the wild. “I eventually left,” I say, sipping the whisky. “I don’t remember much. I walked. I just walked and cried, and tried to figure out what had happened. I tried to make sense out of it, but there is no sense in this.” I look at him, eyes swelling and lip still quivering. “That girl last night wasn’t B. Not the B I know. Not the B we know. She wouldn’t do this.” I shake my head, tears streaming down my cheeks once more. “She wouldn’t do this, Joe. You know her, and she wouldn’t do this to me, right? There has to be a mistake. There has to be.” “Hey, brother. Come here,” he says, bundling me into his large arms. He’s never seen me cry or sob, not even as a kid. I can’t hold it in or be strong right now. I have no strength to offer, barely enough to stay awake. “It’s okay, I’ll figure this out. Somebody has to know something. There’s more to this story and I’ll figure it out. I promise. I know that girl’s distant, but she wouldn’t do this to you.” “She’s not distant,” I say, wiping my eyes and pushing him off. “Not with me. She tells me everything. I know her. I know her, Joey.” “I know,” he sighs. “But that girl’s always had secrets. You know her better than anyone, but… Hey, it doesn’t matter. I’ll figure this out. Someone knows something and I’ll find out what.” Standing up, he walks towards the room-spanning window with glass in hand. “I’ll figure this out,” he says again under his breath. I remember when he first moved here; he invited me and B to spend the night. Drinking, watching movies, listening to music and eating snacks, we laughed and lounged and shared stories late into the morning. When he gave in and sloped off to bed, B and I curled up under a blanket, watching the night sky lighten. “Leeds looks so beautiful up here,” she said as night transformed to dawn. “I know. It’s crazy to think how small it all is,” I said, pointing towards our old library. “It seems so big when you’re down there, but up here you realise how small everything truly is.” I smiled and curled closer to her. “I could watch this every night.” “Me too,” she said. “It makes you feel like anything is possible in the future, and that the past is just that. I can’t wait to live a future with you, Ausdylan Elvis Ashford.” “I love you,” I whispered. “I love you too.” Click Here to see a specially designed piece of artwork that accompanies you on this journey. Artwork 4 of 5 - - - - Designed by Robert Cate OCTOBER 4TH - JOEY’S PLACE: Each day gets darker earlier. Long gone, summer seems distant and vague. It’s hard to believe only a few weeks ago the sun shone and the days were warm. The days overran into the night, light and bright and lasting. Darkness creeps in now, the street lights blinking to life at an earlier hour each evening. In a couple of weeks, the clocks change, and with it, the seasons. True autumn with a hint of winter. Days barely kick into gear at all, remaining murky, dark and bleak throughout. Waking in darkness, commuting in darkness, working in fake-light offices, and returning home in time for yet more shadowy despair. Fitting, I suppose, as these short days coincide with my dark state of mind. I wouldn’t know what to do with bright sunlight. Even now, sitting in Joey’s huge living room with nothing but a dim lamp, it isn’t dark enough. It isn’t dark enough when I close my eyes, or pinch them tight. Too much light, too many memories, her face and her son’s… I’ve never met him, but I continue to dream about him. I don’t know whether to smile or cry, because part of me is unable to give him up, or accept he doesn’t share my eyes. But he isn’t mine, yet how can she be so sure? How can she be so cruel? How am I here, when a week ago I sat on my bed and imagined holding him in my arms? The girl I love and the little boy I helped create, the three of us a family that no one and no thing could come between. But now…sitting alone in a near-blackened room, waiting for…what? What comes next? What am I supposed to do? I avoided work for a few days, but they don’t care for broken hearts. My sole purpose is to design meaningless logos, and posters that nobody cares about. I’m a slave to their regime, and that’s how it is. Not that I’ve told them what happened, because how you do explain that your baby isn’t yours? As far as they know, I’ll still take paternity leave in a couple of months; at some point, I’ll have to tell them the truth, but how? Keeping myself to myself, I avoid eye contact and small talk. I’ve yet to go a day where someone hasn’t asked about B…about my son…about the scan and whether we’ve decorated his room. “I’ll bring you a bag of baby clothes,” said Pam, one of our receptionists. “I can’t believe my Simon’s six this year. Enjoy them while you can, because they don’t stay babies for long.” Nodding and forcing a smile, I tried to keep it together when deep down all I wanted to do was cry. “Thanks,” I said, scurrying away and cowering behind my desk. I try and block out every thought possible and lose myself into whichever tedious task sits on my desk. I’ve never experienced days this long, despite the fading light. As soon as I wake, I long for sleep. Everything in-between’s torture. I doubt it’ll ever be the same. Life’s taste isn’t as fresh anymore. The air isn’t as crisp. The light, not as vibrant. Joey will arrive home any moment, cautious in what he says to me, unable to find the right words. “I hate seeing you like this,” he said last night, perching on the end of the glass coffee table. “Tell me how to fix this, brother.” I chuckled. “I don’t think you can fix this, Joey.” I practically live here, unable to return home and face my parents each morning and night. If telling them about the baby was hard, seeing them the other day was impossible. Joey begged me to see them. My father calls him several times each day. I want to see them and to bundle into my mother’s arms, but I can’t. “Come here, kiddo,” he said, as soon I stepped through the door. Inviting me into his chest, he hugged me like he used to. Old memories of him reading to me, my head on his shoulder, wrapping me under his jacket on the side of the canal; wiping away tears after bumps and bruises. He embraced me and tried to dissipate the pain, desperate to relieve me. “Everything will be fine, you hear me?” he whispered into my ear. “We’ll get through this as a family.” Crying, my mother stood behind him with a tissue scrunched into her fist. She smiled, tears streaming down her face, for she not only hurt because I hurt, but because she lost a grandson…and the daughter she never had. Knees buckling, I lost control and tumbled to the floor, huddled against the hallway wall and clinging to my legs. Against the same wall they used to measure how tall I was, I sobbed and shook all over. “I’m so sorry,” I cried, the words crackling out of me. “I’m sorry,” I repeated over and over. “You have nothing to be sorry about,” said my father, collapsing on the floor next to me. My mother joined us, leaning her forehead on my forehead as her tears mixed with my own. The three of us cried until there was nothing left. “What do I do, Dad?” I asked, coffee in hand as the night drew in. “I don’t know, son. I don’t think there’s much that can be done at the moment. You just need time to figure things out. Time does help. I promise, in time it’ll get easier.” He shook his head. “It makes no sense. Are you sure she meant it? Are you sure she wasn’t mad at you?” “I don’t know what I’m sure about anymore.” “Were there any signs?“ “That she was cheating on me, or hiding something like this?” I said, frustrated at myself more than him, because it’s a question I continue to ask. “No, Dad. I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t until afterwards I realised…it doesn’t matter.” “What? What is it?” I sighed, placing my cup on the table and leaning on my knees. “A few months ago we did this stupid bet about who could last the longest.” “Last without what?” “Sex.” I looked at him. “I don’t even remember why we did it, and I’d forgotten all about it until she showed me one of my letters. I thought it was months ago, but…” “It coincides with the pregnancy?” I nodded. “How long? How long didn’t you have…” “I don’t know. Six weeks, maybe.” Sighing, he took a mouthful of coffee. “I see.” “I didn’t think about it. It’s just some silly bet we did, and when she said she was pregnant, it didn’t cross my mind, because why would it? We love each other and trust each other and—“ “I know, son. I know.” My mother pleaded with me to stay, but I couldn’t. The house holds too many memories, and each time I look at either of them I feel shame, embarrassment. My pain is their pain, and I can’t handle that right now. That house, and them, and my room…too many memories and moments to forget, although life in general offers far too many. Sitting on the train reminds me of her, and the times we’d speak over the phone whilst I made my way home. Or wrote her letters and read the ones she had written to me. Or the fact I’d usually head home to see her and kiss her and fall asleep beside her. I lay awake at night scared to close my eyes, for each time I do I picture her face. When I do drift off into a restless sleep, I dream about her or him or us. Maybe if I understood the truth and the reasons why, it would be easier. Maybe it wouldn’t. I can’t handle it, and although Joey insists I shouldn’t, I keep trying to call her; from phone boxes each time, the way I used to when we were teenagers. My heart races with each ring, but she doesn’t answer. I want to hear her but I’m not sure what I’d do if she answered. I’m not sure about anything anymore. “I do have electricity, you know,” says Joey, approaching from behind. “I love this view.” “Me too. The best view in Leeds.” I nod, twisting away from him until my face captures more of the shadows. “Look,” he says, sitting beside me. “I’ve got something to tell you, but it isn’t easy.” “Did you speak to B? What did she say?” I ask, grabbing his shirtsleeve. “I didn’t speak to her.” “What is it, then? What’s happened? Is the baby okay?” He shakes his head. “It isn’t good, brother. As in, I don’t want to tell you, but I don’t think I have a choice.” My stomach, chest and shoulders tense into knots. He sighs and looks at the floor. “I guess there’s no easy way to say all this, so I suppose I should just spit it out. I knew someone had to know something. I spoke to everyone, but nobody knew a damn thing.” “You spoke to everyone?” I ask, clenching my teeth. “Everyone knows what’s happened?” “No. No, not like that,” he says. “I promise. I figured if I started talking about her, and bringing her up in conversation, at some point someone would say something. Halifax’s a small town, and we hang out in the same circles in Leeds. We know the same people. There’s no way she could keep something like this hidden.” I nod. “She did keep things hidden. Nobody knew anything. I asked a bunch of door staff if they’d seen her, but no one has for weeks. These guys know everyone and everything about everybody. It didn’t make any sense, so…” Reaching into his light brown satchel, he pulls out a green folder with B’s name written on it. “What’s this?” “It’s about B.” I glance at it and shake my head. “What do you mean it’s about B? What is this?” “Do you remember my buddy, Barry?” “The hacker?” He nods. “What have you done, Joey? What is this?” He edges closer and drops the folder on the cushion. “I followed her. I went to her house, followed her, and couldn’t believe what I saw. So I asked Barry to help me dig deeper, because nothing made sense.” He grabs my shoulder. “I promise, Aus. I assumed it was a one-time fling, something she regrets.” “What the hell’s going on, Joey?” I ask, my lips quivering and voice soft. “Just know I didn’t think I’d find this. I need you to know that. I’d never have looked, I promise. If I knew…” “Joey, please,” I say, taking a deep breath. “I went to her house and sat outside for hours. Nobody came and nobody left. I didn’t see her mum, and I didn’t see B, but I knew someone was in because of the shadows and movement. “I waited. I didn’t know why I was there because I knew I wouldn’t find anything. I was angry, you know? I wanted answers, because I hate seeing you like this. It’s not right, and this is B we’re talking about. There had to be something, so I waited and waited.” He sighs, pushing his fingers through his hair. “At about three in the morning she left. Wearing a long black mac I’d never seen her wear before, she walked to the end of the street and around the corner, so I followed her. I couldn’t believe it, because I honestly didn’t think I’d see or find anything, but she approached this black Mercedes with blacked-out windows. “She hopped into the back seat and it drove off, so I followed it. I still didn’t think anything, but then we headed towards Bradford. I had an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, because why would she go to Bradford in the middle of the night? We never go there. She doesn’t have any friends who live in Bradford. And why get into a random car like that? “Eventually, it parked down some side street, and I watched her get out with some guy I’ve never seen before. She went through the back door, but when I walked up to it a few minutes later, it was locked. So I went round to the front, and that’s when I realised what the place was.” He sighs again, clasping his nose with two tense fingertips. “It was a lap-dancing club, Aus. And not the kind you’d go to on a stag do. “I couldn’t believe it. I stood in the entrance, not knowing what to do. I didn’t want to go in, but I couldn’t not go in, either. You deserve answers. I hate seeing you like this. I deserve them, too, because I’ve known her as long as you. None of this made any sense, and this is B, after all, and maybe she was in trouble. I shouldn’t have gone in, but…” “Joey,” I whisper. “What are you talking about?” “I couldn’t find her. It wasn’t a big place, but she was nowhere to be seen. So I got a drink and told the barman I was meeting someone, but couldn’t see her. “He didn’t look at me, just pointed towards a blue door by the side of the stage. There were only a few people in the main room, but nobody looked anyone in the eye. The barman looked at his shoes. The bouncers stared off into the distance. The girls looked through people, vacant eyes and…I’ve been in some shitty places before, but nothing like this. “Anyway, I walked up to the door and stood in front of it for a few seconds. I didn’t want to go in, brother. I had no idea what was on the other side, but I knew it couldn’t be good. Yet maybe she needed me. I could barely breathe, but I opened it and walked through, and wandered down that shitty, filthy hallway. “I’ve never seen anything like it. As I peeked through each door, I saw old men fuck young women, husbands watching their wives get man-handled by someone else, and swingers, and God knows what else. Loud music filled the entire hallway, because who would want to hear that shit going on in the room next door? Hell, who would want to hear that shit going on in their own room? “I reached the end of the hallway, and as I looked through the door I saw the random guy from outside. He sat upright as some girl straddled him and arched her neck up to the ceiling, and on the floor next to his feet was the black mac B left the house in. All of a sudden I realised it was her: her hair, bundled up into a knot like she usually does when it gets in her face; those bony shoulders I’ve seen a million times before; the handbag you bought her last Christmas, on its side by her coat.” He looks at me, red-eyed and pale faced. I feel nothing, unaware if I’m even able to breathe. “I felt light-headed and sick, so I darted back out of that place and got into my car. I just drove, sweating and shaking all over, but I wouldn’t believe it. It couldn’t have been her, because this is B. There’s no way it could.” “This isn’t funny, Joe,” I stutter, running my hand through my hair. “Is this some kind of joke?” “You think I’d joke about this? You think I’d make something like this up? Here,” he spits out, flinging the green folder at me. “What?” I shrug. “You took pictures or something?” “No,” he whispers. “I didn’t want to believe any of it, but I couldn’t un-see what I saw. It was her, Aus. I knew it was her. But what was I supposed to do…tell you? Break your heart? I needed to know for certain, so that’s when I called Barry. “I asked him to look into things, hack into her emails, or whatever other shit he does.” He exhales, long and heavy. “He found a lot. He found a lot of fucking secrets. I don’t even know who she is anymore.” I look at the folder, unwilling to touch it. Unwilling to believe any of this. “So, what…this folder tells me my girlfriend lied to me all these years? Am I supposed to believe this, just because some stoned hacker says so?” “I don’t expect you to believe him, but I expect you to believe me. I saw it with my own eyes, brother. Everything in this folder…I mean, look for yourself.” He opens it and pushes an A4 piece of paper towards me. “You tell me. Is this B? Is this B in this fucking photo?” I clench my fists refusing to believe, but as I focus, I see her. “Barry found several profiles like this on various dating sites,” he says. “They link to an email address she uses, which points to her phone, her address, and her laptop. They all use the same name, and they all have this photo. I can’t say I’ve ever seen B quite like this before, but I recognise that birthmark.” My eyes sting, the edges on fire as my vision blurs and head swirls. The same cloud-shaped birthmark I kiss most nights, above a pair of breasts I know oh-so well. “It can’t be, Joey. It must be a mistake. Someone must have hacked her computer or something.” “I didn’t want to believe it myself, but—” “No, Joey, it’s wrong. Barry’s wrong. He’s fucked up. This is B we’re talking about. You know it can’t be true.” “I know,” he shouts, standing up and tossing the folder against the chair opposite. Clenching his fists, he looks out over the Leeds’ skyline and exhales one deep breath after the other. “Why would she do this?” I say, bewildered. “I know. This makes no sense, and I don’t want to believe it, but everything he found…everything I saw, and can’t get out of my fucking mind…” “No,” I whisper. “No,” I say, louder. “There has to be a mistake. We know B. You know she wouldn’t do something like this. You know—“ “Then why did she say what she said the other day?” he says, gripping my thigh. “Why is she pregnant and saying it isn’t yours? How is she pregnant if the two of you didn’t sleep with each other for over a month? Why did she get into that car the other night? Why did she go into that club? Why was she with that random guy, and why does she have profiles on seedy sites like these? “Why, when the two of you were having your little sexless bet, did she go to places I’ve never been to before? Places I’m sure you haven’t been to either.” “What do you mean?” “Barry hacked her phone and GPS settings. You’ll know a lot more than me, but a few dates stuck out. Look,” he says, pointing at a yellow-highlighted section on the page. “October 10th last year. We went to see The Shins and invited her, but she couldn’t come because she went to Manchester for two days. For some fashion show, remember?” “Yeah,” I say, shaking my head. “Maybe, but—“ “Why was her phone in Bradford, at the same address I found her at the other night? Why did she go there, among lots of other sketchy places, during your little sexless bet?” He closes the folder again and punches it into the cushion. “I don’t want to believe any of this either, but something isn’t right. Seeing her like that the other night…she’s like family.” He wipes his face, those striking blue eyes showing spikes of red throughout. “I love that girl, too, Aus. But…but…she’s a liar. She’s a fucking liar, just like the rest of them.” “No,” I say, shaking my head. “I’d know. I’d have noticed. She wouldn’t be able to hide something like this from me. There has to be a mistake, Joe. There has to be.” Taking a deep breath, he stands again and walks to the floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the city below. “I’m not sure you would. In your eyes, she’s perfect, but deep down you must have known the dates didn’t line up. You were at the doctors when they told you the time of conception. We’ve talked about that stupid bet since, but you were blind to it. Why wouldn’t you be? Why would it even cross your mind that you weren’t the father? You love her and trust her, but…” He twists to face me, leaning on the glass. “I don’t know why she would do this. I don’t know how long it’s been going on for, but I know it wasn’t a one-time thing. “It makes no sense to me, because the B I know wouldn’t do this. But it was B that night, and it’s B who appears in this folder again and again. I don’t know why she would do this, but—“ “I want more,” I say, standing and squaring up to him. “More what?” “Proof. I want proof. Get that fucking Barry on the phone and tell him to get me actual proof.” “There’s nothing else to find.” “The hell there is. You want me to believe? Make me; show me. Tell him to do that bullshit stuff he does and find—“ “Stop it,” he shouts, placing both his hands on my shoulders. “You don’t want to know more.” “Yes I do.” “No, you don’t. I’ve read what’s in that folder, and it’s going to hurt you more than it did me. You don’t want to know more. Whatever the truth is…it doesn’t always set you free, brother.” He sighs. “Do you really want to know why she did this, or how often, or anything like that? Does it matter whether she got bored or curious, or has some fucking twisted fetish in that head of hers?” “Fuck you, Joe,” I say, tears streaming down my face. “I want to know. I need to prove to you this isn’t true. Find out.” Pulling me in, his large arms and hands consume me. He shushes into my ear as I lose control of my senses. “Get off me, Joe,” I shout, my words muffled by his shirt. “Get off me. Get off me.” “It’s okay, brother,” he says. “Calm down. Calm down.” Struggling in his grasp, I fight him and everything within me, all my emotions and the tiniest sensations prickling my skin. It’s on fire, an onrush of every painful memory I’ve ever felt: the time I came off my bike when I was eight years-old, skin ripping free from me as gravel mingled with blood; when my grandma died, and her funeral afterwards, my father crying and holding my hand as I realised I’d never see her again; the moment B unloaded all these lies; the second my world crashed to a standstill as she pulled my son away from me, a father one moment, this wreck the next. I howl, sob and scream into Joey’s shoulder, wrapping my hands around him and gripping as hard as I can. He holds firm, unmoved; a mountain. I buckle under my weight, my knees giving way. “It’s okay,” he whispers. “It’s okay.” He’s wrong. It isn’t. This will never be okay again. OCTOBER 21st - OUTSIDE B’S HOUSE: The night’s chill seeps into my bones, but the whisky’s buzz keeps the pain at bay. I’m not sure what time it is or how long I’ve been here. I still don’t own a phone. I don’t miss it. I only used it to talk to B, and now she’s gone there’s no need to possess a piece of plastic that weighs me down. A phone brings nothing but temptation: the temptation to call her…text her…search for her online, or check old pictures of when I knew her and trusted her and loved her. I still love her. I can’t help it. Despite the secrecy and doubt, I want to hold on to her and forgive her and plead with her to tell me it isn’t true. It can’t be true, and although I don’t know what it is, I can’t accept what’s in that folder. How can I? How can there ever be light at the end of the tunnel if what’s in there is even remotely true? It’s only been a few weeks but already it feels like a lifetime. All I remember is darkness and cold, and I can’t accept that this is it. No light. No end. No explanation or hope. A life without her is bad enough, but a life with only this? This feeling. This emptiness. I keep telling myself it’ll get easier, because that’s what they say…time heals all wounds. But they didn’t have B. They didn’t need her like I need her. The darkness. The cold. The emptiness. The heaviness. Fitting, I suppose, that I sit in this hole between two overgrown bushes. I haven’t come here every night, but I’m drawn to it on most. Here, crouched, and hidden from the light, I slip invisibly in the shadows. I don’t know why I come. I don’t know why I’m here. I hate myself. I hate that I hate myself more than I hate her. I’m here because I need the truth, but I’m not sure I can handle it if the truth is what Joey found. Each day I edge closer to the shop she may or may not still work at, but I never get near. I want to see her but I don’t. I can’t, because if I do, I fear I’ll need her more than I need her now. She’s everywhere I walk already, so much of my life consumed by her side. Everything reminds me of her. Every aspect reminds me of us. Letting go of her means letting go of me. I don’t know why I’m here in front of her house, or what I hope to achieve, but me being here’s necessary. My feet insist on bringing me here. My mind distracts me as I subconsciously walk from the train station to this hole. If I’m here I can protect her and that little boy within. If I’m not, who will? As they have all night, two lamps illuminate two rooms within her house; hers and her mother’s. I’ve never noticed how much she loves the darkness, but I now recall her insistence on switching off the bigger lights, preferring candlelight and lamplight, and the gentle glow of her laptop screen; I wonder what else I missed. I wonder how many of her secrets and quirks stared me in the face as I turned a blissful blind eye. I remember her fondness for old movies, the black and white kind that always made her cry. Never hard. Never more than a trickle, just glassy-eyed and saddened after each. I keep searching for signs in our memories, a moment that may help make sense of this. I’m sure I know her and trust her, and I haven’t been blind this entire time, but maybe Joey’s right. “We know so little about her,” he said the night he bared all. “The more I think about it, the more I realise we know nothing about her childhood. Who was she before she came to Halifax? I assumed I knew, but I don’t. I can’t recall a single time she spoke about her father or where she grew up, or anything about friends when she was younger. Can you?” I opened my mouth but didn’t say a word. I know her. I know her past, yet I couldn’t remember a time she talked about her home before this home. “What are you saying, Joe? It’s all a lie? She’s been lying all along?” He shrugged. “Who knows? After a while, maybe a lie stops becoming a lie. It becomes part of your life, I don’t know. What I do know is, when I think back to the times I asked her about something personal, she put me on edge with the way she stared and fell silent. I never thought much about it because who the hell wants to delve back into their past? But now…I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.” “You’re wrong,” I said. “I knew her. I still do.” “I know you do, but you love her so much. All you’ve ever seen is her perfection. She’s like a damn sister to me, but…I don’t know, everyone has secrets. I guess she has more than most.” My head continues to spin throughout each day, questioning, searching for answers and clues. My head’s as chaotic as it was a few months ago, but for different reasons. Thinking of him scared me, whereas now not picturing his face does. Six months ago everything was normal, but if what’s in that folder’s true, nothing ever has been. I read it all the night Joey showed it to me, my mind numb by the third page. I didn’t want to believe a word. I wanted to lurch towards Joey and tell him he was wrong, tell him to stop putting his own issues on to me. I wanted to, but couldn’t, because everything added up: the emails, the messages, the dates, times and locations. Each page presented forgotten memories, everyday normalcy of B venturing to Manchester for a fashion show or going to a gig with a friend. Late night sewing and drafting new designs, and canceled dates because her mother needed a hand. Simple snippets of life where I didn’t bat an eyelid, but that folder shared another story. When I read the emails and messages she sent to random strangers, I heard her voice, the words and style and tone - the same she used in the letters she’s sent to me over the years. “Tell Barry to dig deeper,” I said a few days later. “I need to know for sure. This isn’t enough. I need to know why she would do this. Why would she go on dating sites like these when she loved me? Why would she fuck strangers? Why, Joe? Why?” “That’s not a good idea,” he said, walking away. “I can’t live like this. I need to know for sure.” “You’ve read the same as me, brother. Do you really need more? Does it matter what her reasons were?” “Yes. There has to be an explanation. She wouldn’t just do this. There’s has to be a reason. Maybe she’s in trouble or—” “Come on, Aus. I know this isn’t easy to come to terms with, but there’s no good explanation for any of this.” “I need to know, Joey.” “No, you don’t.” “Joey—“ “Stop it. I’m not asking him.” “Fine, give me his number.” He walked into the kitchen, heading straight for his blessed bottle of whisky. “Joey, give me his number.” “No way. I know this is hard, but—“ “How do we know he’s telling the truth? How don’t you know he hasn’t made all this up?” “Are you insane? Why would he do that?” “Hackers like to mess with people.” “Come on, he wouldn’t do something like that.” “How do you know?” “I know, okay. He’s a good guy.” “He’s a worthless stoner who wastes away his days.” Stepping towards me, he slumped. “Brother, please stop this. I know it’s hard, but you have to let this go. Whatever exists beyond what we know isn’t worth knowing. Believe me. There’s no good from shit like this. Maybe she gets a kick out of it, or maybe she’s scared, or maybe she’s got a split personality or something. Who cares? Does it matter? It doesn’t make any of it less real or horrible. It still makes her a gigantic, lying bitch.” “Fuck you, Joe,” I yelled, my eyes filling with tears. “I can’t let this go. I can’t accept it. I just can’t, okay?” “I know, I know,” he said. “Don’t you think I know better than most? I know this pain, remember, and although she wasn’t my girlfriend, she’s the only one I trusted, so this breaks my heart, too. Whatever the truth is, it doesn’t change the fact the baby isn’t yours. She still lied. She still broke you. She was still in that club fucking that stranger. ” “But… but—“ “What could she say that would make everything okay?” “I don’t know, but there has to be more—“ “No, Aus. There doesn’t have to be more. Sometimes, people are just shit. I didn’t think I’d come across anyone as bad as my mother, but I guess I was wrong.” “Joey, I’m sorry but I can’t—“ “Don’t ask me to look into this anymore. Please. I won’t do it. Barry won’t do it. You shouldn’t, either. I’m here for you and will do whatever you need me to do, but promise me you’ll leave this alone.” Looking into his own glassy eyes, I walked out of his apartment door. We’ve seen each other since, but don’t say much above the standard hello and how’s your day. I sense he knows I’m here or somewhere as equally ill-advised, but I also think he understands. The ground beneath me dry, I still feel damp and wet as its chill creeps further up my body. Pushing my half empty hip flask to my lips, I sup on a mouthful of scotch, its harsh tones burning me from the inside out. I usually hate harsh whisky, but my gentler tipple doesn’t quite get the job done on a dank and cold night like this. For a few brief seconds it creates a furnace within my body, the alcohol massaging my pain into a mere annoyance. It doesn’t rid the physical agony, nor the emotional worry and turmoil, but it helps. It helps more than the pills, which the doctor prescribed more of after I pleaded with him to take the panic, anxiety and pain away. He held my hand and said it would be okay, that these new pills are stronger…that they’d help…that I’d get through this…but it’s too great, and they don’t help enough; the whisky, on the other hand, does help. A short-term solution, I know, and not the right answer. But it helps now. It’s what I need, now. I suppose there’s no difference between drinking alone at home and here in this ditch, but it seems less pitiful here. I didn’t mean to come here the first time, and haven’t wanted to since. An inner yearning brings me, leaving the station with my head down and somehow ending up in front of her house. When I first came and realised where I’d ended up, I froze before her garden path, wondering whether to walk up it and knock on the door. Part of me wanted to. Part of me wanted to see her. Part of me wanted to listen to her and ask her to explain, to believe her, hug her and put all this behind us. But I couldn’t move. Shaking under my jacket as the wind beat me, I slipped back into the shadows. Is this where Joey waited, I thought. Where was the car? Which street did it park on? Will it arrive tonight? An hour slipped by, and then another, and before I knew it, the sky lightened and the birds chirped into life. For the first time in weeks, minutes didn’t seem like hours. I didn’t know what I’d find. I’m not sure I wanted to see her leave or not, and I’m still not sure now. I fell to the cold’s numbness that night, unprepared for a night in the gutter. I went to work the next day wearing the same clothes, and for some reason, returned to this hole in the shadows. Returning in the dark and leaving at the sight of dawn, I’ve yet to see her or her mother. I like to think this is a good sign. I can’t help but care for her and the child within, and so long as she’s in that house, she’s removed from the dangers of what she may have got herself into. Whereas, if she left right now and climbed into a strange car…I don’t know what I’d do. Even if she left to run and escape her woes, how could I know what she was running towards? Unscrewing the hip flask, I push it to my mouth and picture my fifteenth birthday when Joey gave it to me. “I bought the same one,” he said. “We can take it to gigs and sneak it into school.” He smiled, wild and mischievous and far too cocky for someone so young. “You’re my brother, Aus. I love you.” It’s the only time he’s said it to me, and it’s the day he began calling me brother. Barely a day goes by that he doesn’t have that hip flask on him, his far tattier and haggard than mine. The metal rim is rusty, whereas mine remains clean. The black leather on his, worn, and his initials hard to see; but mine, clear to read: A. E. A. I’m sure he knows I’m here. He knows what it’s like to be let down by someone you love and not understand why. I never did appreciate his fondness for his hip flask, and why he savoured each sip of whisky from it as if it was his last, but I do now. It’s a comfort knowing it’s here, ready to take away the pain if I choose to take it no more. Empowering in a way, the only thing I truly have control of right now. I take another swig, its inferno warming my insides for a few brief seconds. My bum remains damp and cold, my torso, arms, and legs on their way. The wind isn’t strong down here, although the creaking of branches tells a different story. No rain right now, but the air feels damp. Two small lamps illuminate her house, one in her mother’s room, the other in hers. It looks so lonely surrounded by the other houses, each one lit with larger lights and porch lights, and shadows as people stride from one end of a room to the other. I know she’s in there, but I don’t know what she thinks. I assumed I did, but I know, deep down, I never have. There’s too much doubt. There’s so much I’ve missed. Ever since this all happened, it’s felt like a dream I’ve been waiting to wake up from. Maybe it’s the other way round, and I’ve finally woken up. NOVEMBER 4TH - THE BAND ROOM: I look at a past version of myself, one of the band room’s numerous posters showcasing my expressionless face and Joey’s seducing smirk. Always the lead singer, Joey’s comfort in front of the camera grew with each new shoot, gig, and song. Whereas me, the perpetual bassist, sits in his shadow, refusing to smile and reluctantly look at the camera. We’ve gone through a few drummers and guitarists over the years, but Joey and I remain the contrasting constants. Them leaving isn’t always Joey’s fault, but it’s often the case. This particular poster, from when we were fifteen, maybe sixteen years-old, features Dan and Ben, as well as Joey and myself. Although Dan was a terrible drummer, he always got his hands on beer and other substances a teenager craves. I consider Ben our most talented of guitarists, but it didn’t take long for him and Joey to despise one another. Only with us five months, Joey stole three girls from him during this period. He entices people to love him with such ease at first, yet it doesn’t take long for him to do something…say something…simply be who he is and drive people away. B and me, the only ones to stick with him, no matter what. Now the number’s halved, I’m not sure I’m enough. I’m unsure I can class myself as whole, because I certainly don’t look like it anymore. I slide my fingers over my teenage cheeks, across the same messy hair with loops and curls colliding into each other. The same big nose and pale skin. A non-smile, just like in every picture I take. I find it near impossible to smile with a camera pointed at me, but during occasional, accidental moments my smile shines through - always with B, and always perfect in its imperfect snapshot of time. I can’t stop thinking about her. I hate it. I hate how she pops into my head every opportunity she gets. She’s part of so many memories I fear I have none of my own, my mind defaulting to her each time it wanders. I hate it. I’m beginning to hate her. I lift my warm bottle of beer to my lips and sip the somewhat soothing taste. A joint perched between index and middle finger, I slip it into my mouth and inhale. Mixing with the aftertaste of beer, my throat hums. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t smoked for over three years. Never a habit. Never something that agreed with me. Where it used to perk up Joey and B, it sent me into a soothing slumber. “You need to try it,” Joey said when we were thirteen. “It feels cool. It’s weird. It’s different to beer.” I never cared for it, and neither did Joey after a while. B, on the other hand, became fixated for a couple of years, smoking every opportunity she had, although never a full joint; a social thing, an evening thing, a harmless escape. I haven’t seen her smoke for a few years, but maybe she never stopped. Maybe she smoked more and more until it manifested into just another secret. Something else she hid from me. Something else she hid from everyone. Sitting in the old couch that’s housed far too many people over the years, I lean back and puff once more. Head buzzing and whirling, I close my eyes and breathe in and out, gentle, soothing movements of the chest. I hate how I think about her, but maybe it’s getting easier. I haven’t been to her house for nearly a week, after all. It’s cold, far too cold to spend entire nights sitting in the dirt, but I’m not sure this is the reason I stopped. I still want to see her, but I don’t. The thought of watching her leave in the middle of the night pains me, and I’m not sure how I’d handle it. The longer I wait and watch and wonder, the greater the chance that pain becomes reality. I settle further back into the couch’s cushion, inhaling another breath of smoke as my head spins a little faster. A rattle of metal on wood clatters behind me before the old door to this hell-hole of a room crashes against the wall. “I figured you might be here,” Joey says, striding past me to stand in front of a stack of music magazines. “You alone?” “Who would I be here with?” “I don’t know. I suppose I hoped you might be here with a girl.” “Why?” “Because why else would you come here on your own? Hardly a luxurious setting.” “I thought you loved it here.” “I do, but I come here to play music or have fun. And never on my own, might I add.” “Sorry to disappoint.” “Are you smoking weed?” I nod. Joey sits beside me and inspects my fingers. “Since when do you smoke without me?” he says, reaching for it and pushing it to his lips. “Oh, yes, this is a good idea. It’s years since we smoked together.” He closes his eyes and smiles. “I must say, I didn’t expect to see you smoking. Should I be worried?” “I wouldn’t say I’m smoking. I just figured I’d get some as it may help me sleep.” “And?” “I don’t know.” I sigh and reclaim the joint. “It’s all a mess.” “I know. You can’t isolate yourself like this, though. You live with me, but I’ve barely seen you in weeks. I figured you might be spending time at home, but…” “What?” “Your dad called me. Again. He says he hasn’t seen you for a fortnight. He’s worried about you.” Picking up a fresh bottle of warm beer, I twist it in my fingers and scratch the dry label. “I’m fine. I just need time on my own. You should be happy, I’m hardly fun to be around at the minute.” “I don’t know. You’re drinking and smoking and hanging out in the band room. Add a few girls into this picture and I’d say my dream’s come true.” “That’s your dream?” “For you to be cool? Yes. Yes it is.” I laugh, the unfamiliar sensation hard to bear. “I suppose this is your ultimate dream.” “What’s that?” “Me being single.” “Hey,” he says, perching on the end of the couch. “I’d never wish something like this. I hate this.” Standing up, he walks towards the drum set. “I know I haven’t been here for you these last few weeks, and I’m sorry about that. It’s hit me hard, but it’s no excuse because you need me and…I don’t know…I want you to know I’m here if you need to talk.” “It’s fine,” I say. “I’m fine. I mean, I will be.” “I know you will, but I’m serious about you not doing this on your own. I’m here. I promise.” “I know you are, but I want to be on my own at the—” “You need people around you. Whether you want it or not.” Picking up a drumstick, he looks away. “I’m not sure where you’ve been these last couple of weeks, and whatever it is you’ve done is fine. You need to do what you need to do, but at the same time you need to know I’m here, and I need to tell you I’m sorry for not being here sooner. We’re going to get through this. Together. You hear me?” I nod, unable to look at him as cold middle-of-the-night memories bombard me. He kneels on the filthy floor and plants his hand on my thigh. “Despite everything I just said…” He squeezes my leg and puts his other hand on my knee. “You and me single…are you kidding me? We’re going to have a blast, brother. Just you wait, I’m going to make sure you have so much sex.” I laugh again. “I’m serious. So many girls will want to sleep with you. All they’ll be able to think about is how jealous B will be.” “Everyone loves B.” “Girls don’t love other girls. They pretend they do, but deep down they want to screw each other over. From here on in you won’t be Ausdylan, B’s boyfriend. Rather, Ausdylan, the boy I can sleep with that will make me better than B. It’s simple biology.” I swig my beer and shake my head. “Here,” I say, passing Joey a small bag. “You’re better at rolling than I am.” “This is what I’m talking about,” he says, balancing his beer between his thighs. “For the next few months every girl will want a piece of you. Plus, once they find out what she did—“ “No.” I snap. “I don’t want people to know about any of this.” He laughs. “Are you kidding? In a few months there’ll be a baby and you won’t be the father. How do you plan on keeping it a secret?” “I mean the folder, Joe. Promise me you won’t tell anyone about it.” Narrowing his gaze, he unloads the contents of the bag onto a thin piece of wispy paper. “I wouldn’t do that. I just want to forget about that fucking folder.” “Forget? I’m not sure it’s something you can forget.“ “We can try,” he blurts, halting his twisting fingers. “We can try. You’d be amazed at how much you can forget, especially with more nights like this.” He points to his lap but stares at me. “We need to unload and be young and free. Life’s too short to cling to the past,” he continues through gritted teeth. “Besides, I doubt she’ll stick around these parts for long.” “What do you mean?” He scoffs, muttering under his breath “What have you heard, Joe?” “Nothing,” he says, licking the strip of paper from left to right. “But word will get out, and once it does maybe her other secrets will, too. She doesn’t have a lot of friends.” “She has loads of friends.” “No,” he says, scoffing again. “She knows a lot of people, but only had two friends. It’s easy to be popular when you’re the pretty girl and nice girl and the cool girl, but who gives you the time of day when you turn out to be the girl she is? She had two people who truly cared about her. You and me. That’s it. Who sticks around for a whore like that?” “Don’t call her that,” I say, sighing and lowering my head. “A whore? Why not?” “Because…just don’t.” “Aus—“ “I know, Joey. I know. But don’t. She’s still B, and she’s still…” I look at him but don’t finish. Sighing, he passes me our joint-in-waiting. “Got a light?” he asks. I remove the lighter from my pocket and spark the crisp paper to life. “It’s going to be a shit few months, isn’t it?” I say, the white twisted piece of paper dangling from my mouth. Saying nothing, he sips his beer and pulls his grandfather’s pipe from his pocket. “A lot of it will. But it’ll get easier. You’ll forget. We both will. And when we do, we can live life like we used to dream about. Travel and such. Be nomads. Be vagabonds. Be drifters and searchers. Remember when we used to dream about that?” I nod. “And the band. We’re about to explode and now you can be part of it.” He lifts the joint out of my fingers and takes a deep breath. “I know this is shit. I know this hurts, and I know it always will. But this could end up being the best thing to ever happen to us. It starts with nights like these, rediscovering who we are and what we want in life, but it ends wherever we wish it to end. We can go anywhere. We can do anything. You and me, brother, tackling the world like we always have.” “I wish I believed that, Joey.“ “You’ll see. I promise you’ll see one day. We need to stick together like we always have. No matter what. Me and you,” he says, drifting off and closing his eyes as he inhales another breath of smoke. “Forget everyone. Forget the past and those bullshit women. Forget B and Harriet, and everyone else who prevents us from being us. We don’t need them.” He inhales another breath of smoke. “You and me, brother. Just you and me.” I remember our chats from a younger time, Joey imagining faraway lands and impossible lives. They were his dreams, not mine. I nodded, and played my role because it was my role to play. But I don’t think I ever felt free, because for so long as I can recall I’ve been part of an us. My dream was where B was. I didn’t have my dreams, rather our dreams. How can anyone have freedom if they’re interwoven with another? How can I possibly foresee travel and adventure if my arms link with someone else? Now, I am free. I can foresee travel and adventure because I’m no longer cuffed to my parents or B. I’m no longer part of a plural, but a singular man in a world that can become anything I desire. My head spins again, but not because of the substances abusing it, rather the realisation that here I am, a free man. Only, I feel more confined now than ever before, because I’m unsure I’m ready to let go of her…of us…of those plural dreams I’ve always known. NOVEMBER 12TH - MY DESK AT WORK: I stare at the brief, an A4 sheet of paper with words and numbers sprawled across it. These words form sentences, and the numbers provide facts. It all comes together to form a job, a task; a project that will take me a day, week, or month to complete. This page offers me a purpose for being here, but it just lies there, staring at me, mocking me. ‘Read me’ it says. ‘This is your job. This is why you’re here. Can’t you read, idiot?” Maybe I can’t. Maybe I’ve forgotten. Maybe I’ve misplaced a part of life I once loved so dear. It’s something else she’s stolen from me, took with her when she left. For months, I struggled to read because of the burden she unloaded on me; impending fatherhood, and the many anxieties that come with it, halted my drifting into fictional worlds. Each page a struggle, just like it is now. She didn’t have to do it to me. She could have told me the truth from the start, at least that way I’d only have gone through this pain once. Picking up the piece of paper, I twirl it in my fingers, trying to determine its gist without committing to the actual art of reading. An advert, no doubt, for some terrible trade magazine. Or a web banner aimed at distracting and annoying innocent bystanders. Or something for a brochure, maybe, the familiar logo at the top of the page catching my eye. I can’t remember what they do. An accountant, or a solicitor, or…who cares? It’s all the same, none of it matters. I drop the page, it floating to join the rest of the paper chaos. I took such pride in this desk when I started this job. Everything had a place, each sheet and document in a neat and tidy home. I don’t mind working in the midst of clutter, but it needs to have purpose. With everything flung across the table, I cannot focus. B used to love clutter. She’d design new clothes in the middle of it, thriving amidst its mess. I hate how I think of her. My desk is a mess. Nothing has a place anymore. I never liked this job. It was never part of my dreams or hopes for tomorrow, but in the beginning I had a reason to be here. I saved for a life I could share with her. I wanted to create a life together. Ambitions could come later. But now? In the middle of Red Bull cans and discarded sandwiches? Old projects and new ones mixed together? No purpose, place or pride. I can’t focus here, but I can’t focus anywhere. I used to read to escape, but there’s no escape from this. I’ve never gone this long without reading an entire book. I’ve had droughts over the years, but never more than a week. Books never give up on me. They always forgive me and wait for me. I’ve read The Great Gatsby thirteen times, and devoured it in a single sitting on each and every occasion. No matter my mood or state of mind, one page always leads to ten…to one hundred…The End. Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to read it eight times, but I’m yet to pass the third page. The words crumble before me, slipping down the paper into a pile of vowels and consonants. I stare at them, bundled up like the leaves Joey, B, and me would create in my back garden before scattering them across the grass with a heavy heave and a kick. I silence the words with a firm close of the book. Snap. Perks of Being a Wallflower sits beside The Great Gatsby on my nightstand. So does To Kill a Mockingbird. The Watchmen lies patiently in my bag, and the complete Sandman series hides in this desk’s drawer. Touching the handle, I sigh and close my eyes. Books and novels I love and adore, but I cannot face them. If I cannot face these, what can I face? If I don’t have books, what do I have? “You okay, Aus?” asks a familiar voice from behind my shoulder. “You look upset,” Jessie continues with a hushed tone. “Would you like a glass of water?” I swivel in my seat and look at her, her blue eyes darting from one area of my desk to another. Glancing at everything but me, she smiles. “Excuse me?” I say. “A glass of water? Would you like one?” “No, Jessie. Thank you.” “Okay. But are you sure you’re alright? You look a little—” “I’m fine,” I sigh, swivelling back to face my blank computer monitor. “Okay.” Stepping closer, she places her bright red fingernails next to one of the discarded cans of Red Bull. “Tony would like to see you, in his office.” “Okay,” I say, awakening my screen with a tap of the keyboard. “In a few minutes. Is that okay?” I nod. “Aus?” “Yeah?” I sigh again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” “I’m fine, Jessie. I’ll finish this up and head straight to Tony.” Looking at her, I force a smile. “Okay. Thank you.” She showcases her flawless white teeth with the same smile she welcomes visitors in reception. “If you need anything, let me know.” “I will. Thank you.” Twisting on the spot, she flicks her curly, blonde hair, struts down the hallway and rounds the corner. I haven’t seen Tony in weeks, but it’s no surprise he wants to speak to me. When this nightmare first happened, coming into this godforsaken office offered a relief of sorts. Keeping me busy and occupied, each day passed without too much torture. A distraction is all, and like all distractions, I grew bored of it. Distractions don’t fix anything, merely delay the inevitable. As the days get shorter for everyone else, they slow to an unbearable standstill for me. No longer a distraction, but a place I slump into and rot. Looking back, I can’t fathom how I kept turning up. Staying late most days, and arriving early, I didn’t call in sick or share my pain. I showed up like a good little worker and distracted myself with this nonsensical daily grind. You can only run for so long. I called in sick twice last week, and I’m tempted to do so each morning as I lay on Joey’s couch and stare at the ceiling. I don’t wish to sit at this desk for hours on end, but I don’t wish to pass the time anywhere else. I just want to escape, although escape what? And now I have, for the first time ever, the actual freedom to escape this life and town, and reinvent anew if I choose, but am I ready? Is it what I want? At least here I have some semblance of structure, but out there wandering the lands…what is there to do except think and sink? “Let’s get this over with,” I mumble. Walking down the hallway and edging closer to my boss’ office, my chest doesn’t beat and my shoulders aren’t tense. Such an invitation doesn’t tend to end well. Like trips to the school office, bad times often await; but unlike then, when my chest did beat a frantic thump, I now walk with ease. Maybe Tony’s curious about my tardiness. Maybe people have complained about my appearance, or the fact I do less each day. Maybe they smell whisky on my breath, because if I can taste it, they can surely smell it. “We’ll be fine, brother,” Joey once said, venturing to the school office during our third year at high school. My stomach numb, every possible scenario ran through my mind. “I’ve got us covered,” he continued. “Just leave the talking to me.” “Yeah, we’ll be fine, right?” I said. “They don’t know anything, right? We’ll be okay. They can’t prove we skipped school, right?” “I’ve got this,” he said, his smirk and sparkling blues on full show. So confident and sure of himself, despite knowing nothing about what stood on the other side of the door. I know nothing about what stands on the other side of Tony’s door, but I don’t feel confident or sure of myself, nor do I panic and shake like I did back then. I feel nothing but the pain of indifference itself. “Hi, Tony,” I say, knocking on the door and slipping inside. “Jessie said you wanted to see me.” “Hi, Aus. Take a seat.” I head towards the same chair I had my interview in. It seems so long ago. So much has happened in the last year. So little of it good. A waist-high white bookcase lines one wall, full of colourful, glossy textbooks, magazines, and brochures. I remember eyeing it the last time I was here, hoping to spot a novel we’d both read so I could impress him and ease my crumbling nerves. Matching the shelves, Tony’s shiny white desk glistens in the harsh white light. The white coffee table and white-rimmed photo frames complete this minimalistic hell-hole, more reminiscent to an Ikea display area than an actual room a human being spends time in each day. My eyes ache from the overbearing light, each surface gleaming. “How are you?” Tony asks, leaning in his leather chair, the one black item in the entire room. “I’m fine, thank you.” “Keeping busy?” I nod, in his spotlight once again and a prisoner in his domain. King of his castle, he smiles in the knowledge he’s in control, because the moment I first entered this room and sat nervous before him…pleading with him to give me a job…is the moment I gave up any control I had. Joey and I grew up saying the same things, but he decided not to settle, whereas I did. We dreamed and mused and desired so much, but I gave it up before I had a chance to touch it. I didn’t try, I settled. I didn’t fail, because I didn’t even raise my hand. I gave into fear and it all began here…with Tony…in this fucking office. “We’ve not had a chance to talk much of late, have we?” he says, as adrenaline bubbles beneath my chest. “I guess not,” I say, staring at his white lamp aglow with awful light. “I apologise for that. You’re still new, and fresh from university. I’m sure things aren’t quite as you expected.” You’re quite correct, Tony, this isn’t what I expected of myself. Is this life? Is life turning up to a desk each morning and waiting for the day to end? Is life not earning enough, but giving far too much? Is life having the one person you cannot live without, leave? Is this what I signed up for? Is this life, to give up before I give it chance to begin? “I’m not sure what you mean,” I say, digging my nails into my thigh. “Well, this is your first real job, yes?” I nod, heaving in a deep breath. “I remember what it’s like. A long time ago for me, of course,” he says, laughing at his own stupid joke. “We all want a challenge, and sometimes we don’t feel like we’re challenged enough. Or appreciated.” I nod again, because I have no words. “I appreciate some of your tasks and projects can become a little…stale after a while. But you have an opportunity to progress here, and I’d hate to see you waste it. You’re a good worker, or should I say, you can be a good worker.” “Have I done something wrong, Tony?” I ask, stern and short, the words escaping me before I have chance to push them back in. B and I fell in love amidst a sea of dreams. We could be anyone, go anywhere, and do anything. I allowed myself to dream just enough to think it possible, but never enough to assume it could be real. Joey let them in, but what have I done? Maybe this is why she left. Maybe she signed up for a different version of me, one that dared to be somebody, but as time ticked I let it slip through my fingers; maybe she crept through too. Maybe I’m the reason she turned to a life I cannot fathom, because maybe the boy she fell in love with disappeared. I thought she needed a life of stability, a man who could provide. A husband and father with a job and wage, because this is what we do. We wake up. We come to work. We rinse and repeat, and ensure we’re good little workers. “Aus,” he sighs, leaning on his elbows. “I’m trying to help you here. If there’s something going on, maybe we can help.” “Everything is fine,” I say again, gritting my teeth and keeping the eruption within. “I don’t think it is,” he says, still calm, still collected. “Several people have come to me. They’re worried about you. This isn’t about you missing work or turning up late.” “It sounds like it is.” “Come on, Aus. Don’t be like this. You have a job to do, and I know you’re good at it. These last few weeks, though…” “What? I haven’t fulfilled my duties?” I say, emphasising every t and d. “No, you’ve done the work you need to do.” “So, what’s the problem?” “Because it isn’t about turning up and doing your job. It’s an important part of having a job, but so is communicating and presenting yourself in a professional manner. From what I hear, you’re not doing this.” His tone drops, as does his smile. “This isn’t how we do things around here, so if you aren’t happy, you need to tell me.” “Happy?” I laugh. “Who’s happy, Tony? You might be, in your white room of despair. But who out there is? Why would anyone be happy here? Why would anyone be happy with a job like this, where we’re forced to work on pointless, worthless projects for businesses nobody knows or cares about.” “Okay, let me stop you right —“ “No, you wanted to know what’s wrong. Here it is. My life right now is beyond repair. I won’t bore you with the details, but this,” I say, stabbing my middle finger on his over-sized desk, “is where it began. I should never have taken this job. I am not supposed to be here, and I lost her because of it. Once I lost her, I lost me. I’ve lost everything, and it began the moment I signed my life away to you.” Pointing to his agape jaw and hollow eyes, I stand up and push my chair over. “With all due respect, Tony, fuck you. Fuck this job and this life. I don’t want it. I can’t have it. This isn’t me and it never will be, and the worst part is, it’s taken me this long to figure it out. “And do you know something?” I say, striding back and forth before his desk. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how it came to this. How I lost everything in a blink of an eye, and how I didn’t see any of it coming. Because there has to be a reason for it, and I can’t have been blind to it the entire time. But I’ve figured it out, and it’s this,” I say, stamping my foot on his godforsaken floor. “It’s here. It’s having a mind-numbing job like this, surrounded by mind-numbing people like you, doing mind-numbing tasks that make you so blind to the world around you that the girl you love literally slips through your fingers and manifests into a monster. “The moment I said yes to you and your job is the moment I said no to life. My life. Me. So thank you very much, Tony. Thank you and goodbye, you tiny little troll.” He motions to stand, but I shake my head. “No, no. Sit down and shut the hell up. You have nothing to say to me.” I stride towards the door and burst through it, dashing down the hallway as fast I can, rounding corners and pushing past desks as the main entrance gets closer and closer. I can’t look back or stop to say goodbye, or even glance at a colleague, because I fear if I do, I’ll realise what I’ve done. That person wasn’t me - a shouter and swearer, the type to confront someone to their face. I’m already at the reception area, passing Jessie as she looks into a small mirror and marks her eyebrows with a pencil. I’m not out of the door but it already seems like a hazy dream, because that man couldn’t be me, but maybe it needs to be. Maybe that’s how I have to be. Maybe that’s who I’ve always wanted to be, and for some reason, kept it within. I continue to stride and stride, my lungs aching and straining as my legs try to go faster and further and push a little harder. I’m at the main entrance and then through it and outside it, and the chilled afternoon awaits me, a sunny and blue sky, yet one that offers little mercy to someone who’s coatless, scarf-less, and hat-less. I leave it all behind, along with my books and whatever else remains in my desk. I won’t come back to this place. I’m escaping it and moving on to whatever awaits me next. NOVEMBER 15TH - A BATHROOM FLOOR: Beatrice Butterworth is a bitch. That’s how the dream ends, me shouting and falling into a dark, eerie abyss. My eyes shoot open, and for a few seconds I’m at peace. There is no pain. There is no despair. There are no lies or deceit. There’s nothing but a soothing, calming, numbing nothingness, until everything turns against me and transforms into torture. “Urghhh,” I groan. What can I remember? What the hell happened? Where on earth am I? The last thing I recall is standing outside of work, catching my breath after storming out of Tony’s office. “What the hell?” I whisper, each word whistling through my cracked lips. Blinking, I open my eyes long enough to explore the strange place where I lay. I appear to be in a bathroom, and a rather grim one at that. A pain runs up my left arm, and the pounding in my head beats heavier; the rumble in my stomach, an unbearable tumble. “You did it, B,” I say. “You’ve broken me. You did this. I loved you and trusted you so much, but you’ve broken me. I hate you, B. I hate you.” Sitting on a plastic beer crate, I pull my legs tight to my chest. After sobbing in front of the mirror for a few minutes, I crept out of the bathroom, terrified about what I might find. Thankfully, I slipped into another empty room, although I’m unsure if this is a good thing or not. I dread to think the type of person who lives in a place like this, yet at least they’d have answers. Struggling to stay upright, I survey my grim surroundings: a dirty and dusty wooden floor; 1970s wallpaper, a mess of red and orange floral swirls; a lamp on the floor, not plugged in; a portrait of a black horse, propped up in the corner of the room; and this plastic beer crate I sit on. A pile of clothes also sits near the bathroom door: a red shirt, not mine; a pair of torn jeans, certainly not mine; and a pair of brown shoes at least two sizes too small. I look at the latter for a few seconds, and force my feet inside, after realising how frozen I am. Each second seems endless as my body comes to terms with the cold. I recall the middle of the night freeze, crouched outside B’s house, but it doesn’t compare to this. Numb all over, my skin prickles and tingles, my toes, itchy and tender. I’m sure I should be in pain, but I wouldn’t call this pain, rather emptiness, as though this current worthless low point has sapped me of all life. I’m a shell. A disgusting creepy-crawly. I stare at my bare feet through the loose laces of these tiny shoes. Where did they come from? Who do they belong to? I need answers and to figure out where I am, but everything within me burns. If my outside aches with cold, my innards throb with whatever poison I consumed last night. This isn’t a drunken hangover. I know hangovers, and this isn’t one. Even after drinking an entire bottle of rum as a foolish sixteen year-old, I didn’t feel like this. “You need to learn to pace yourself,” said my father, comforting me but also lecturing me all afternoon. “When you stumble home at four o’clock in the morning, and throw up in the fridge, you know you’ve had too much. Remember that, son.” I did, too, always pacing myself better than Joey. I enjoy the drunken haze, but not the out of control frenzy. I hate waking up unable to remember the night before, but I’ve never woken up void of all memory. I need to know what happened, but maybe I don’t. Like B’s own dark underworld, some things are better left alone. Taking a deep breath, I push myself up from the plastic crate and walk towards the window. Light screams through it, my retinas scorched by the bright, blurry whiteness. Each step shudders up my body, my stomach queasy and chest tight. Dizzy and light-headed, I cling to the windowsill as soon as I reach it. A grey and dreary day stares back, as grim as my face. At this time of year, it’s difficult to guess the time of day. As soon as the sun rises, it remains the same tone until it drops again. Wherever I am sits beside a busy road, cars fly past from both directions; I only see streaks of colour as my eyes try and keep up. I’m not sure of my location exactly, but the red-bricked houses opposite me seem somewhat familiar. I lean closer to the window and search further down the street, straining to find a recognisable building. Houses, cars, bushes and gardens, bus stops and traffic lights blot the landscape, which doesn’t look foreign to me, though I’m not sure why. I’ve probably been here for a party, but that doesn’t whittle down the possibilities. I lean further towards the window, and there it is: a yellow sign beside a red bus shelter. I know where I am. I know where this is. I’ve walked this street numerous times before, hopping off that bus stop with Joey whilst we visit his friend, Jim. This isn’t Jim’s house, as he lives further down the street, but I know where I am. I know where this is, and in an instant my shoulders relax and my head quits throbbing. Then the rumble and turmoil begin again, because, why am I here? Why am I in one of Leeds’ most notorious areas? Why the hell am I in some random squalor that sits on the same street as Jim’s? I check my trouser pockets for change, desperate for a couple of pounds to escape this nightmare on the bus. Nothing. I’m panting. I’m light-headed and on the verge of vomiting. I can’t do this. I want to curl up and die. I need to calm down. I need to breathe. I need to figure this out and leave this house. I need to… “The phone box,” I whisper to myself. “By the side of the bus shelter. There is one, I’m sure there is.” Walking towards the bright yellow sign, I spot the phone box and relax. I left the house, and as soon as I stepped outside, my body warmed; that horrible cesspool colder than out here. Each step is painful, my body shakes and shivers, my head pounds and stomach churns. I can’t think about the pain and urge to throw up. I need to call Joey. I need to make it to that phone box. He’ll come for me. He’ll rescue me. I edge closer with each limp, my left side aching as I move my leg forward. I’m nearly there, just a few feet to go, the door in reach and in my hand. I slide it open and it reveals a metal phone with rusty numbers; half-torn posters and stickers decorate the walls, alongside black paint and the signatures of bored teenagers. I tap the buttons and dial the vaguely familiar sequence I used to use when making a collect call to my parents. It rings…one ring…two rings…pick up Joey. Three rings…pauses…crackles…a fourth ring…a longer pause…a click… “Joey,” I snap. “Are you there?” “Aus, is that you?” he replies, his tone quick and short. “Where have you been? Are you okay? What the fuck is going on?” “I’m fine,” I sigh, placing my forehead on the cold, metal wall. “I’m in Chapeltown. By the off-licence near Jim’s. I can’t remember anything, Joe. I’m freaking out.” “Are you with Jim?” “No. I’ve no idea where I’ve been.” I sigh again. “I can’t remember anything.” “Jesus, brother. What the hell have you been up to?” He trails off and rustles some keys. “I’m coming right now. Don’t move, okay?” “Okay.” “Brother?” “Yeah?” “You sure you’re okay? You’re not hurt or anything, right?” “I’m fine. I have the worst hangover ever, and can’t remember anything about last night, but I’m okay.” “Last night?” “Yeah. I remember leaving work, but then it’s a—“ “Aus, I’ve spent the last two days looking for you.“ “What are you talking about? What day is it?” I ask, my chest picking up its pace once again. “It’s Saturday. It’s nearly two o’clock on Saturday. What day did you think it was?” “I quit my job on Wednesday afternoon, and after that…” “Wednesday?” He startles a laugh. “Shit. You’re a lunatic.” “I’m freaking out, Joe. Please, come get me.“ “I’m coming. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Cupping a steaming mug of coffee in both hands, I feel my fingers for the first time today. Wrapped in a blanket, I’m covered from head to toe in Joey’s gym clothes. I can’t remember the last time I wore jogging bottoms or a hoodie, but right now I can’t imagine ever wearing anything but. “You had me worried, brother,” Joey says, sitting next to me and holding his hip flask. “Here, I think you need some of this.” I shake my head. “I’m never drinking again.” “From what I hear, that might not be a bad idea. But right now, you need to get warm.” Without permission, he pours a generous shot into my coffee. “Okay, explain yourself,” he continues. “I wish I could. The last thing I remember is standing outside the office after quitting and screaming at Tony.” “You screamed at your boss?” “Yeah.” I gulp from my mug, the additional whisky almost forcing it up my throat again. “I guess things spiralled from there.” “You don’t remember anything?” “Nope. I woke up on some bleak bathroom floor, half naked and feeling utter despair. It’s not even hazy. It’s like someone erased my mind.” “I see,” he says, swigging from the flask. “What have you heard?” I ask, glancing at him before looking at my curled up toes peeking out from the bottom of the blanket. “I’m not sure you want to know the answer to that.” “That bad?” “I don’t know where to begin. Plus, I only have bits of the story. I didn’t start looking for you until Thursday night.” “Do my parents know?” “No. Although I decided if I didn’t find you today I’d tell them and call the police.” “The police?” “What else was I supposed to do? Christ, I thought about calling B.” I laugh, a slow, small, pitiful, despairing laugh. “I figured you may have killed her…or she’d killed you.” “Maybe I did,” I say. “I suppose we can’t rule anything out.” I sigh. “What happened to me?” He takes another sip from his flask but says nothing. “The highlights,” I say. “Not too much detail.” “I don’t have much detail to give you,” he says, pouring another shot of whisky into my coffee. “On Wednesday night, you were seen in Hi-Fi, Smokestack, and Neon Cactus. You were thrown out of the last two.” “Who was I with?” “Nobody. I spoke to all the door staff, and those who remember seeing you said you were alone. All night. And Jerry, one of the guys behind the bar at Neon Cactus, said you were silent the entire time. You just propped yourself at the end of the bar and kept yourself to yourself. He said you didn’t seem too drunk at that point.” “Why did I get thrown out, then?” “You fell asleep.” “Great.” “But you were fine, for the most part. They led you out, put you in a taxi, and all was well. Except you apparently got out of the taxi and walked into Smokestack instead.” I sip my coffee, the rich aroma mixing with the hum of whisky. “Anyway, you were thrown out of Smokestack at around two o’clock, and from what I can tell, you didn’t go into another bar afterwards, at least, not one of our regular hangouts.” “I don’t remember any of this,” I say, pulling the blanket closer to my chin. “This was the bright part of your little adventure. It got pretty damn weird after that.” “What do you mean?” “No doorman or bar staff have seen you since Wednesday night.” “How the hell did I get into this state, then? If I didn’t go into any bars, where did I go?” Cocking his head, he squints. “Oh, Jesus, where did I go?” “It’s hard to say, but nowhere good. Stevie saw you several times, though.” “Stevie the drug dealer? That Stevie?” “Yep.” “But…I hate that scumbag.” “Apparently not. You kept calling him.” “I called him? How did I get his number?” “The hell if I know. I can’t understand the guy at the best of times, but he’s especially useless at three in the morning. Anyway, despite being baked off his face, he did call me a few times after he saw you, although he never gave me much information.” “Why?” “He’s a piece-of-shit, that’s why. He sells crack to people and smokes more than he sells. I’m lucky he called me at all.” Resting my head on the back of the couch, I stare at the blank TV screen. “What did I buy off him? I didn’t smoke crack, did I?” Laughing, he wraps his giant hands around my shoulder. “I don’t think so. You did have quite the party, though.” “More than weed?” “You kidding me? Definitely more than weed. He couldn’t remember what he gave you, but it involved a cocktail of pills, blow, and a little acid, too.” “Acid? Cocaine? What the hell?” “Whether he’s telling the truth or not, I don’t know, but considering the state you’re in, it’s fair to assume you tried a few new treats.” “Why would I? I’ve never…” “Once you start a rollercoaster ride like that, you don’t get off without a fight.” I push my hand through my hair and massage my temples. “Why didn’t you tell him to stop selling me stuff?” I say, whining. “He’s a piece-of-shit-drug-dealer, Aus. He’ll sell drugs to anyone.” Groaning and moaning, I pull the blanket over my head to hide as much shame and pain as I can. “Fine. Fine,” I say, my voice muffled by the fabric. “Where did I end up? If I haven’t been in any bars for the last three days, where have I been?” “I’m not quite sure.” “But you know everyone.” “Brother, you have to understand you’ve spent the last few days hanging out with a bad crowd. I don’t exactly bump shoulders with crack addicts and meth-heads, okay?” He stands up and takes another swig from his hip flask. “A few people do think they may have seen you, although it’s hard to say because they were high.” “Who? Who saw me?” “This girl I know, Josie. She thinks she saw you at some party in Bramley, although I’m not sure she’s ever met you, so she may be talking nonsense. But Ross…he’s sure he spoke to you last night. He can’t remember where or for how long, but he seemed pretty certain. The problem is, these people are high as hell. You can’t believe a word they say, which is why I’ve been so worried. “Seriously, you scared me. At first, I figured you were letting off steam and enjoying the bender of a lifetime. I was actually proud, although a tad disappointed you didn’t include me.” He sits next to me again, topping up my coffee with another splash of whisky. “Last night…I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to call your parents because I kept thinking as soon as I did you’d turn up. I didn’t want to worry them or get you in trouble, so I waited…and waited…” He turns away from me, looking out to the darkening Leeds’ skyline. “It’s like reliving this craziness with B all over again. You descended into a world you don’t belong in, and you’re lucky to come out of it unscathed.” He faces me now, with a half-smile and tired eyes. “I have no idea where you ended up this morning, but some scumbags live near Jim. Promise me you won’t do something like this again.” “I promise, Joe. And I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.“ “It’s fine,” he says, gripping my shoulder with a heavy hand. “You’re safe and it’s over. I think the best thing we can both do is forget about it.” “Yeah, I know. You’re right. I’m sorry, and thanks for looking for me. I’m lucky to have—“ “Say no more,” he says, standing up and walking towards the kitchen. “You know I have your back, although you may like to get yourself checked out in the next day or two.” “Why?” “You know,” he says, pointing towards my crotch. “Checked. Out.” “You think…I might have… No, I haven’t had sex with anyone, Joe.” Laughing, he opens the fridge and grabs two bottles of water. “You’ve had sex, alright.” “No…no… I don’t feel like I’ve had sex.” “Trust me, you’ve had lots of sex. You don’t go to parties like that and not have sex.” He tosses me one of the bottles and spins the other in his fingers. “You have one hundred percent had sex with some suspect women you would never consider having sex with under normal circumstances.” He opens the bottles and takes a deep swig of one. “Hell, maybe more than suspect girls…” “Shit,” I say, holding my thighs. “Please tell me you’re joking.” Shrugging, he sits back down beside me. “Anyway, how did all this begin? Since when do you tell your boss to fuck off?” Draining my mug of coffee and whisky dry, I sigh once more. “I have no idea. I just lost it. I sat in the same chair I did for my interview and considered everything that’s happened since uni - not just all this shit with B and the baby, but the job, and moving back home, and becoming this lemming who wakes up each morning and does the same thing, day in, day out. I lost it. “He wanted to help me, not fire me. He knew something was wrong, but all I saw was this man who started this nightmare. I hated him, which made me hate myself because I’m the one who made the decision to get a job like that. “It’s like you’ve been saying for months, this isn’t me. This isn’t who I want to be, and this isn’t the life B and I talked about. Maybe this is why she did what she did, because—“ “Brother, B didn’t do this because you got a job. You know that, right? You know how crazy that sounds?” “I know, but maybe it played a part. She didn’t fall in love with a graphic designer. I write and draw and create art that matters, but do you know something? I haven’t written or created anything in months. I grew up pretending to be this artist who would push against conformity and live a life of meaning, but the moment the world pushed me back, I fell to my knees. The minute I took that job is the minute I gave up.” “Aus, that’s crazy.” “I don’t think it is.” “B did what she did because she chose to. It’s not your fault. It’s not my fault. It’s not your boss’ fault. It’s hers.” “I know. I know, Joe, and for the first time I honestly believe that. Waking up this morning and seeing what she’s done to me…I hated her. I hated her so much.” I grit my teeth and clench my tender fists. “But it doesn’t change the fact I gave up on me. I know I can’t blame myself for what she’s done, but I can’t blame her for all of this, either. I took that job, and have made a whole host of shit decisions of late; sitting in that shitty office made me see. “I’ve been so weak and scared. Leaving uni, taking the first job I could find, acting the way I did when B told me about…him…I feel so far removed from the guy I dreamed of becoming. I was so angry at Tony, but the truth is, I was angry at myself. I guess I took my anger out on myself, because why else would I do all this?” The room goes quiet, the wind attacking each window with blows and slaps. “It’s been a tough few months,” Joey says, walking over to his high-rise balcony doors. “And I won’t lie, you’re right. You shouldn’t have taken that job. You’ve made a lot of decisions over the last couple of years I’ve found hard to accept, but that doesn’t make you weak. We’re still kids, brother. I know we’re in the real world now, but what the hell are we supposed to know? Who the hell are we? “I hated the fact you took that job, but I respected you for it. You knew what you wanted and made decisions based on it. All you’ve ever wanted is to live a happy life with her, and I’ve never understood it, but it gave me hope that one day I may feel like that. Maybe one day I’ll take that boring, shitty job, because it allows me to settle down and have a family. “It’s not your fault B bailed on that idea. You both wanted it. I was there, remember? I’ve been there alongside you both whilst you talked about the future. The future involved both of you, and she’s the one who gave into fear. Not you. You would have done anything for that girl, including putting your own dreams on hold. That isn’t weak. That’s brave. I love you for that, and I think that makes you the best of us. “So, yeah…you now need to think about you again, and I agree, you’re better than a shitty job like that. You’re above a normal life of nine-to-five, and you should be out there travelling and creating, and being the best you can be. But don’t hate yourself for taking a chance on her.” Planting another heavy hand on my shoulder, he walks back towards the kitchen as my still tingling skin warms slowly with the room. I’m tired and beaten and unsure what comes next, but whatever does, can’t be as bad as waking up half-naked on a grim bathroom floor, like the one this morning. NOVEMBER 22nd - THE BAND ROOM: One week. Seven Days. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight hours. Ten-thousand-and-eighty minutes. Six-hundred-four-thousand and-eight-hundred seconds. I don’t think I’ve ever done so little during an entire week, and one’s never crawled by so slow. I’ve felt every tick, suffered through each tock, contemplated and dwelled on each thought. It’s a lot of time to think. It’s a lot of time to question every damn thing. It’s a lot of time to hate. I don’t think I’ve hated someone or something before. It takes too much passion and energy, and it’s far too exhausting to live with hate on your mind. I miss the easy-going, worry free times of love and affection. Love is easy but hate is hard. Hate requires energy and dedication; a guy like Joey, who I sense hates a lot, has reason to hate. Maybe we all need hate. Maybe a person requires hate to drive them towards something that matters, and away from those moments that don’t. The truth is, I don’t know what to think anymore, so many twisty-and-turny thoughts swarm my mind. Although I do know that, of all the emotions I’ve felt and suffered through these last six months, I hate hate the most. Sitting on the ancient couch, I’m alone in the band room that’s become my home. I suppose, technically, I still live with my parents, but I haven’t spent a night there in over six weeks. I suppose I’m also a temporary squatter at Joey’s, but I haven’t slept there for the past three nights. Growing up, I dreamt of a nomadic existence, falling in love with its romantic freedom. On The Road taught me about travel, and Huck Finn about hustle. It all seemed so free, yet in reality, freedom’s the most confining prison of all. Damien Rice hums to my mood, part of a mixed CD I made a decade ago. I used to smile as he sang, his hurt and pain somehow soothing. These days, it intensifies my lethargy, although I feel better today than I have done in weeks. Each day does get easier. I’m sad and lost, but the heaviness feels lighter than it was. My chest isn’t as hindered, my limbs not as restricted. I still feel lost. I remain jobless and loveless and, all in all, hopeless. But it is easier today than it was yesterday. A strange hope creeps through the horizon, a purpose of sorts, and one that edges nearer. I can’t yet grasp it. I can’t yet see it. I don’t know why I know it’s there, but I do. “It’s strange,” Joey said last night. “This feels normal. Sitting in the band room, drinking, laughing, plotting… We’ve been here before, brother.” “What are you trying to say? I no longer depress you?” I said. “I think it’s because you don’t depress yourself.” “I’m still depressed.” “You were always a little depressed. You have a rather depressing face.” “Maybe it’s because you depress me.” “I’m the life of the party. Don’t you forget it.” “Then why are you here with me on a Friday night? Shouldn’t you be out DJ-ing? Or corrupting some innocent young girl?” “No girl is innocent.” “Not after they spend a night with you.” “Hell, yeah,” he said, smiling. “And besides, I’m here for you. And for us. I miss this. Normal life got in the way of the life we had planned.” “No worry of that anymore.” “Silver linings, Ausdylan Elvis Ashford. What would we do without them?” Damien Rice fades into Connor Oberst, the faulty light above flickering in tandem. I thought I knew every inch of this room, but over the past week I’ve uncovered several hidden quirks. Like the way the faulty light flickers six times each and every time; no more, no less. Or how, when it rains, a small damp patch forms in the left corner by the door. Or how, at night, mice scuttle back and forth behind the walls, and sneak under the floorboards. Sitting, staring and waiting for nothing, I watch the room and sip warm lager. I couldn’t face alcohol for a few days, and may never attempt whisky again. But there’s something soothing about lager’s taste. It mixes well with my mood and drowns my mind of too much thought about her. Because when I think of her, I hate. And when I hate, I think of everything: her…this…him. Such a long week, and so much of it painful. Such a long six months, and almost all of it painful. Life, on the whole, painful. Joey’s said it for years, too wary to believe in happiness’ hype. Maybe he’s right, maybe not. Like I say, I’m unsure what I think anymore. I think too much, but of little in all. “Brother, oh brother, tonight we escape this wonderful room,” Joey says, charging through the door as it smacks against the wall. “And before you say no, you don’t have a choice. There’s an impromptu gig we’re going to, and because I cannot miss it, you cannot miss it. There’s no way I’m leaving you here on your own, so before—” “Okay,” I say, wrapping my right leg under my left, and twisting to face him. “Okay? Just like that?” he says, folding his arms. “No arguments?” Somewhat surprised myself, I nod. “Are you sure? Because I have a list. I actually wrote them down,” he continues, pulling a sheet of crinkled paper from his pocket. “Do you want to read it to me?” He sighs, sitting beside me. “No, I guess not.” Picking up a beer from the half empty crate, he leans back. “This is weird.” “All I said was okay.” “I know, but I hadn’t planned on you saying yes. I figured you…would fight it.” “Do you want to go?” I ask. “Of course I do.” “Well then, just go with it.” Sipping, and eyeing me up and down, he shrugs. “If you say so.” I can’t figure out my mood. I hate, and don’t want to, but in some ways, I do. Each day I remind myself I should continue to mourn and be angry, be sad and full of regret. I don’t want to hate, but I need it, surely? She did this to me. She took away my son. She forced me to love a life I wasn’t ready for, only to push it out of my reach. I shouldn’t want to see a band or say yes to anything. This lager shouldn’t taste sweet, because the whisky from a few weeks ago didn’t. I’m not ready to let go of the pain and rebuild, so why do I feel better? Why do I feel lighter? Why don’t I think about her as much, and when I do, why I don’t I clench my fists and wish I knew more about her secret existence? Why isn’t the curiosity there, or the longing for everything in that folder to be wrong? Have I let go of her? Am I ready to? I’ve lived what feels like my entire life based around her, and us, and what we would achieve together. I couldn’t possibly be ready to move on after a mere few weeks. I can’t possibly be ready to heal after a wound this deep. “Anyway, we have to be in Leeds by ten, so we’ve plenty of time to pre-game and listen to good music, which, might I add, Bright Eyes and Damien Rice don’t achieve. Come on, brother, this playlist is a decade old. Let it go.” “You love Bright Eyes.” “Correction, I loved Bright Eyes. Many moons ago. But right now we need something uptempo, like a little jazz or funk.” “The music box is all yours,” I say, motioning towards our old mixer. “Hell, yeah,” he says, springing to his feet. “I’m excited about tonight. I know we’ve had nights like these a thousand times before, but tonight feels special. Dare I say, a change of direction?” “Don’t get too excited.” “I don’t know, I sense my little Aus is back. My partner in crime. Are we back, Aus?” he says, hovering over me and slapping my knees. “Are we back? Are we back to rule the world like we’re destined to?” “Shut up.” Laughing, he turns and moves to the mixer, fiddling with dials and turning up the volume. “We’re back,” he says, louder. “We’re going to travel, ruffle a few feathers, sleep with lots of insecure girls with father issues, and corrupt the ones who don’t.” He spins and faces me, that damn smirk spread across his cheeks. “I can’t wait until you sleep with your first redhead. Redheads are straight up insane, and guaranteed to make you question life.” “How about we just go to a gig?” I counter, holding back a smile. “You’re thinking about it, aren’t you? You’re trying to picture what she looks like.” “Shut up.” “You are, I can see it in your eyes, you dirty devil.” “Shut up, I’m nowhere near ready for that. And I hate to spoil your fun, but I doubt I will be for a while.” He bites his lip and turns the volume down…another smirk. “Oh, man, I’ve just realised, you’ve never properly kissed another girl, have you?” “Shut up, Joey.” “You haven’t, though, have you?” I screw up my nose and lower my chin, “No.” “This is amazing. You get to experience your first kiss again, and the first time you undress a girl when you’re so drunk you can’t tell she’s even a girl. And the boobs…brother, there are so many different kinds. Don’t get me wrong, B’s were pretty good, but—“ “Shut up, you idiot.” “And the legs and smells, and the quirky little traits they all have. Like how they each have a unique bite, and the way they…you know,” he says, angling his eyes to my thighs. “Brother, you’re going to have a bloody ball. I can’t wait for you to meet a Cassandra.” “A Cassandra?” “I’ve only met two Cassandras in my life, and they were both crazy. Girls named Cassandra are freaks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I laugh. “Shut up. All I want to do is go to a gig.” “And you will, but tonight’s only the beginning. My brother, I have so much to teach you. So many tips to share. All these years I’ve wanted to, but couldn’t, yet here we are…a perfect team at last.” “Tips? I don’t need tips. You’re forgetting I’ve had sex plenty of times before.“ “Don’t talk nonsense,” he scoffs, sitting next to me. “What you were doing with B all those years doesn’t count. You were making love, or whatever you want to call it. It’s time for you to have sex, which is a very different proposition altogether.” “You’re an idiot.” “Nope, you are, if you think you’re equipped to make a girl scream and shout your name. They expect you to take charge and be naughty and do…stuff.” “Stuff?” “Oh, yeah. The kind of stuff they would never admit to wanting, and the kind of stuff that makes them blush, but trust me, they want it. If you don’t give it to them, they’ll find someone who will.” “So, you then?” “Exactly.” I laugh again. “We’re going to have fun. I’m excited for you.” “You’re excited about me having sex with nymphomaniacs?” He stands again and walks back to the mixer. “Not just the sex. About everything. About you being Aus again, and you living life. Nothing about this last six months has been good, and I’m proud you’ve got through it.” “I wouldn’t say I’m over it.“ “I know you’re not, but you’re getting there. I’m not saying it’s a clear run from now on, but trust me, it’ll get easier.” I nod and smile, a genuine one. The type of smile I barely remember. “I know.” “And that bender of yours, as bad as it was, will help.” “Now you are talking nonsense.” “I’m not. You needed to let loose and create unthinkable chaos. We all need those utter low points in life, and we all need to disgust ourselves from time to time.” “Well, I certainly did that.” “You don’t just escape hardship,” he says, leaning against the amp. “You need to push and fight through it. It’s a battle, and sometimes it gets dirty. Sometimes you get so filthy you don’t think you’ll make it, and sometimes you need to form a greater pain in order to overcome the real agony.” “And that’s what I did, huh?” “Oh, yeah. Better than most, too.” I sigh, shivering at the thought of the hangover and the torture that seemed to last for days. Nothing but hazy snippets from those dreaded days remain, cloudy memories that may be dreams, of me huddled in a corner with a bottle in hand; or staring into the eyes of someone I don’t know, and who looked at me, pleading for help, sharing a pain of their own; and tears…lots of fallen tears dripping down my cheeks…tears I needed to shed and let go of, because, like Joey says, maybe we overcome pain by punching a hole right through it. “Did you ever find out what I got up to? I ask. “No,” he says, shaking his head as he flicks through a stack of CDs. “You sure about that?” He stops for a second, unleashing that damn smirk once more. “I’m sure.” “I suppose some things are better left alone,” I say, sensing my best friend knows more than he’ll ever let on. “They say ignorance is bliss, don’t they?” “Who are they?” “Smart people.” He chuckles. “Or ignorant people.” I smile and nod. “I do appreciate you, Joe. I know I put you through a lot those few days, and for the last few months. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” “What sort of friend would I be?” “I mean it.” “And so do I. Anyway, I kind of owe you, don’t you think?” I reply with silence, holding my words on the tip of my tongue. “At least all of this has helped me understand your crazy way of thinking,” I say, standing up and joining his CD flicking. “You’ll never understand me, brother. Some people are too awesome to be understood.” He slips a CD from a clear sleeve and winks. “Now, this is more like it. This will get our blood boiling and ready for the night ahead.” “Let’s do this.” “That’s what I’m talking about,” he says, planting both his hands on my shoulders. “He’s back, ladies and gentleman. He’s back, bigger and better than ever.” Fiddling with more dials, he turns his attention back to the mixer. “Oh, I forgot to tell you, this letter came for you today.” He pulls it from his pocket and places it in my palm. I sink. That lightness disappears and the heaviness returns. “I must say, I’m a little disturbed you’re getting mail sent to my place. Does this mean you’ve officially moved in?” I stare at the envelope. I’m frozen to the floor, my limbs unable to move. Heart racing, stomach churning, those laughs from moments ago seem like distant memories already. “You okay?” he asks, turning down the volume before the song has a chance to build. “What’s up with you?” “The letter,” I whisper. “What about it?” “The envelope. The handwriting.” “What about it?” “It’s from B,” I say. NOVEMBER 22nd - JOEY’S PLACE: November 20th From a very lonely park bench Dear Aus, It seems so long since I last wrote to you. It seems longer since I last saw you. Every time I try to sleep, I see your face the moment I broke you. I hate knowing it was me who did that to you, the way your eyes lost their light. The pale tones of your cheeks. Your trembling upper lip. I recall each detail as though you’re still in front of me, and although I expect nothing but your resentment and distrust, I miss you. I don’t want to. I know I shouldn’t. I know I don’t have the right to miss you, or write to you, or see you. I thought about writing this letter weeks ago, but convinced myself not to. I know this isn’t fair, but I can’t forget about you because despite everything I’ve done, I want you to know I love you, that you’re the best thing to ever happen to me. I’m sure you’d like explanations and answers, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to give them to you. It isn’t because I don’t trust you. I trust you more than anyone, but I’m not sure I trust myself to admit them. Out loud, they’re so real, but hidden away, they remain secretive nightmares I can pretend don’t exist. I know none of this makes sense, and that after you read this - if you read this - you’ll only have more questions. But I need you to know that I miss you and have always loved you. I can’t stand the thought of you believing my love was a lie, because although I’ve lived much of my life as a lie, loving you wasn’t one of them. I’ve wanted to share the truth with you many times before, and I nearly have because I trust you more than any other person I know. Part of me still wants to tell you, but I can’t. The world isn’t magical, Aus. It’s real. If I told you everything when I first wanted to, we would never have had what we had. So, please, don’t hate me for keeping it from you. I wanted to protect you. I wanted to protect us, but I guess in the end I couldn’t. And I need to tell you this now before it’s too late, because I don’t think I’ll stay in Leeds much longer. I need to get away from here and start again. Nothing feels the same anymore, and I doubt it ever will. Everything reminds me of you. Everywhere I go reminds me of a time spent with you. I haven’t told Mum yet. I like to think me leaving will help her, finally set her free. But I’m scared, because if I go, I go. There isn’t any way back, and I know this. It’s for the best, I’m sure it is. Not just for me, but for you, too. And my mother. And him… I shouldn’t tell you any of this, because why should you care? You shouldn’t, but it still seems familiar to share my worries and thoughts with you. I know I’ve kept secrets, but I promise I’ve shared more with you than anyone else in this world. I need you to know it wasn’t a lie. I need you to know I loved you, and that leaving you…my life aches. It’s ruined. I’m ruined. I keep thinking about how unfair it all is, and how everything could be different if only… But what’s the point? What’s done is done. I miss you. I miss you more than I ever thought possible. I’ll love you forever. But you shouldn’t love me. You need to let me go and live your life, and me leaving will help. I know it will. Whatever you find out in the future, know my love for you was real. I promise. I miss you, Ausdylan Elvis Ashford. It’s time to let go. The girl you used to love, B x I’ve read this five times already, my stomach fluttering each time. In part, I want to tear it up, claw the paper, and leave it on the floor. Yet my eyes well up, I yearn for it, wish to smell the ink so I can taste her taste once more. Why did she write this? How could she write this? What does she want from me? “You going to reply?” Joey asks, sitting on the arm of his couch, flicking through the TV channels. Perching on the edge of the cushion, I lean on my knees, the handwritten letter shaking in my fingertips. Her handwritten letter. Her handwriting. A letter from her, a special ritual we’ve kept alive since we were thirteen. Text and email and technology be damned, we wrote. We put pen to paper and it meant something. But what does this mean? “I don’t know,” I say, my throat dry. “I can’t. But…I don’t know.” “Notice how she didn’t apologise?” he says, his gaze unmoved from the television screen. “What do you mean?” “She never said sorry. The first time she’s reached out to you after everything she’s done, and she doesn’t apologise. If you ask me, there’s something seriously fucked up about that.” “No, I suppose she didn’t.” “I’ve thought about this a lot recently. How she’s never said sorry.” “That’s not fair.” “Really?” he says, switching the TV off. “When? Name a time that girl ever apologised for anything.” “I don’t know. She’s apologised to me, though.” “I don’t think she has. She turns things around and makes you think she’s sorry without ever saying it. Remember the time she tried to set me up with that awful friend of hers, Brit? I begged her to leave it alone, but she pushed and pushed and pushed, until I finally went out with her. Remember how dreadful it was?” I nod, recalling the ranting and moaning as he described every dull moment. “I was so angry at her. “I told you,” I said. “I told you I didn’t want anything to do with her, but you insisted I’d have a good time. Why do you set me up with your friends? Why do you try to fix me?”” He goes over to the kitchen counter, picks up a glass and opens the half empty bottle of whisky. “The amount of times I’ve apologised to her for messing around with some girl she knows, or getting you into trouble… “She’s a nice girl, Joey,” she said. “Every guy I know fancies her, so I think this says more about you.” “Not the point,” I told her. “I asked you to leave it alone,” I said. I’d had enough, and do you remember what she said to me? “Fine. If you want to be angry at me, do so. But I think we both know this is about you and your issues. Not mine.” “That’s what she always does. Not just with me, with you, too. The time she broke the neck of your guitar, and instead of apologising, smiled and made fun of the situation; how you needed a new one anyway. Or when she lost your wallet. Did she say sorry? Because I remember that day, and all I remember are smiles and puppy-dog eyes.” He punches the TV remote and turns it back on. “I’m telling you, that girl’s never apologised in her life. Not once.” “Maybe,” I say, picturing the spring afternoon in the park when she accidentally kicked my guitar against a tree. Sun-soaked grass, and beams of light snaking between the branches, I kneeled beside it. “Johnny Marr signed this guitar,” I whispered. “We’ll get you a new one,” she said. “You loved that one you saw in Manchester a few weeks ago, remember?” “But…but…Johnny Marr…” “I know, sweetie, but this is a sign you should buy a new one. I mean, when a tree breaks it…it’s a sign, right?” “The tree?” Looking at me with those eyes…that smile…noticing the way the spring light lit her face… I laughed, venturing to Manchester the next day. “She didn’t explain anything, either,” I say, folding the letter in half. “She has no idea that we know her little secret. Why send this letter, other than to make herself feel better? There’s no other reason.” Joey shakes his head. “Maybe this is how she kept so many secrets. In her eyes, maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. She’s not wrong. She’s not sorry. It’s someone else’s fault. It’s life. It’s…” I trail off, unable to finish the sentence as I picture her face. This isn’t anger or hate. I don’t know what this is, pity maybe. Her smile isn’t as bright and warming. Her face, no longer as beautiful and perfect. She’s human, just another person, and I didn’t think that was possible. “Nobody’s perfect, brother,” Joey says. “I’m not saying she did it on purpose and went out of her way to never say sorry, but as I look back on all those long days we’ve spent together, and everything we’ve been through, I don’t recall a single apology. That’s not normal. There’s something wrong about that picture. When you break a guy’s guitar, you say sorry. When you do someone wrong, you say sorry. “You don’t write a letter like this to someone you apparently love.” He sighs, turning the TV off once more and dropping the remote to the floor. “Letter or no letter, B isn’t the girl we thought. I don’t know what happened to her. To be honest, I don’t care. I’ve got my own problems. You’ve got yours. Life is shit. It’s no excuse for being what she is.” I nod because I can’t argue. I’m tired and clueless as to what I feel and think, but I no longer feel the same for her. I suppose I haven’t for a few days, but this letter…it does answer questions, although it doesn’t provide the answers I thought I wanted. “You’ve been thinking about her a lot then? Thinking about this?” I ask. “She’s all I think about,” he says, clenching his fists and bunching them into his thighs. “I trusted her. I never thought I’d trust a girl. I promised myself a girl would never make me doubt myself again, or question who I am, or make me wonder if it was my fault. I trusted her. She broke me down.” He faces me. “She gave me hope that maybe one day I would find someone and let them in, but this…it’s like she’s left all over again. Only this time, it’s worse, because I’m old enough to know better.” The wind rattles against the windows, Joey’s sky-high apartment in the midst of Yorkshire’s wintry elements. Falling into silence, the room becomes part of the outside, the pair of us out in the cold, naked and bare. We’re out there, scared and fragile, and all I want to do is reach over to my best friend and huddle him, hug him and hold him, not just to keep me firm and standing, but to keep him upright, too. Vague memories of his mother are all I have, hazy sketches of her face my mind pulls from long ago moments. I remember how quiet she was, not unlike B’s mother. The way she whispered rather than spoke. Soothing in many ways, and caring and nice and warm. I haven’t seen a picture of her in over a decade, not after Joey burned every one he could find. I don’t remember her, but I remember Joey afterwards, his tears, and how he seemed to live with us after she left. “You have to be a brave boy for Joey,” my father said, kneeling in front of me, palms caressing my cheeks. “Your friend needs you to be brave. Can you do that, kiddo?” Nodding, I cried because I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand why my friend no longer had a mummy, and why my mummy couldn’t be his mummy, too. I still don’t understand how a woman can leave her little boy behind. I don’t understand how anyone could leave anyone they love behind. I remember Joey’s smile when we were younger, how it’s so different now. Maybe the day she left, she took his innocent, boyish grin, and replaced it with the smouldering smirk that leads him in and out of trouble today. “I’ve thought about her more these last few months than I have in the last ten years,” he says. “I didn’t even think I hated her anymore. You can’t hate someone you don’t think about, right? If you feel nothing whatsoever, they no longer have the power to make you hate them. Or love them. Or miss them. They’re nothing. They’re nobody. “But I still hate her. Whenever I think about her, I feel it. I remember that scared, confused, guilty little kid who figured it was his fault that his mum left. That she couldn’t love him because he didn’t deserve to be loved. A little boy, so naughty and bad and worthless, his own mother couldn’t stand to be around him. “But I was wrong. It wasn’t my fault. I was just a little boy, and for whatever reason she gave up on me. She gave up on my dad, and I don’t know why. I don’t care why. Understanding why would mean she’d have to come back, but I don’t want her back. She doesn’t deserve to come back. Some things are unforgivable, and I promised myself a long time ago that no girl would ever make me feel like that worthless boy again. “But B found a way. All the while, I made sure I saw each girl as some silly little object I could do what I pleased with. I didn’t take a girl like B into consideration, a girl I looked to like a sister. “I never understood how you loved her so much; how you let your guard down in the hope she wouldn’t trample all over it. I used to think you were weak and stupid, and that I’d have to pick up the pieces one day. But as time went on, I saw it. I saw little glimpses and would say to myself, ‘Maybe one day you’ll have that, Joey. Maybe one day you’ll find someone you can let in. Someone you can trust, just like Aus trusts B. Maybe you can trust Harriet one day, and finally let her in…’ “The memories of my father rubbing my back as I cried and sobbed vanished, replaced with a future of kids and a family and smiles. I think that’s why I hated her so much, because she destroyed my dad. He’s a good man, brother. I know he loved her and treated her right. He didn’t beat her. He’s never once laid a hand on me. He’s a good man, but she took everything. He had no idea how to soothe me. All I wanted was my mother to read me stories about Bugs Bunny again, and calm me before bed. “How do you explain to a little boy why his mother left? How do you explain she left for no real reason? And how do you do this whilst you mourn yourself, heartbroken that the woman you loved…married…promised to look after and care for…woke up one morning and said, “I quit”? “I’m reliving it all over again, only this time around I’m my father, trying to comfort you and come up with answers when there are no real answers to be had. There’s no good reason. There’s no sense in any of this, and I keep thinking about her and how much I still hate her. How she stays with me each fucking time I see a girl…sleep with a girl…like a girl for a second and think it could lead to more…but no. How can it? How could I possibly let someone in and expect them to love me when my own mother couldn’t? “But I fell in love with B. I cared for her, and trusted her, and placed my faith into her, because so long as I had her, I had someone. A smidgen of hope in an otherwise swirling black hole of utter distrust and despair. I honestly thought it would be okay, that she wouldn’t be like her. That she wouldn’t only love you and give you the life you deserve, but build up my faith, hope and love. “But she left, because that’s what women do. She tricked us, because that’s what women do. She let us down, because that’s what women do. She’s gone and she’s never coming back, and a fucking letter like this makes no difference.” He picks up the paper and scrunches it in his palm. “No fucking difference,” he says through gritted teeth, spitting each syllable as a line of tears runs down his left cheek. I haven’t seen him cry for a long time, the tears for his mother dried up many years ago. “Joey…I’m sorry.” “What are you sorry for?” he says, wiping his hand across his eyes. “You’re the last person to be sorry. You, brother, are real. You’re true.” “I can’t remember the last time we spoke about your mother…“ “Don’t,” he snaps, standing up. “Don’t finish that sentence. I didn’t want to talk about her. I don’t want to think about her, and I’ve done well over the years to block any and all thoughts about her.” “But maybe you should, Joe. Not everyone will be like her.” “B’s like her. I’ve let two women into my life and they both fucked me over. You’ve let two women into your life, and half of them have destroyed you. What does that tell us?” “We’re due a good one,” I say. He moves to speak, but holds back. A slight smile. An almost invisible smirk. The anger within him rescinds, but the pain remains. “Maybe,” he sighs. “Or maybe that’s how people are.” “My mum isn’t like that. Harriet isn’t like that. I know it’s hard, and trust me, I understand you better today than I ever have, but I refuse to accept this is it. That this feeling of utter shit is it. It can’t be, Joe. It just can’t be.” “Don’t you see, that’s how I’ve felt. That’s what I wanted to refuse, too, and B helped me. She helped me push down far enough that I could dream. I could see a future of maybe. But what am I supposed to think now? Do you honestly think you’ll be able to trust the next girl?” “I don’t know,” I whisper. “I don’t know anything. A few hours ago I was on the mend. I felt better about myself, and I was laughing. We were laughing, but right now, I feel like I’m back to square one. This entire year has been one horrendous rollercoaster. Maybe it never gets any easier or happier, but I can’t accept that, because it means I have a lifetime of this to look forward to,” I say. “I look at my parents and see happiness, love and an easier life. They found it, and if they can, we can. Maybe not today. Maybe not with B. Maybe not with Harriet. But there has to be something, right? I mean, what’s the point in living for so long if it feels like this? What’s the point if you drag a boulder behind you each goddamn day? “You’re a good guy, Joe. Your mother did the shittiest thing a mother could do. I get it. I understand why you’re afraid. I don’t think I used to, but I do now. You’re too good and brave and strong to bow to her knees, though. If what you’re saying is true, you’ve given up. You don’t give up. You’re Joseph-bloody-Johnson. You’re the guy that guys like me look up to.” “Then maybe you should find someone else to look up to,” he says, wiping his face once more. “I’m not brave. I have no answers. Every time I think I do, someone comes along and rips them up.” “Have you ever tried to look for answers?” “Like where?” “Like your mother?” He laughs, a choked cough more than anything. “My mother? You mean, look for her? Try and hunt her down?” I nod, wary to mention her name like I always have. The anger in his face melts, sadness replacing it as more tears drip down his cheek. “Not for years. Like I say, I promised myself long ago I wouldn’t let a girl hurt me. That includes her. She’s done it once. She won’t do it again.” “But what if she can explain?” “And what if she can’t?” “At least it’ll create closure.” “And what if she doesn’t want me? What if, after all these years, she rejects me again? What would I do? What would you do, Aus?” “I don’t know,” I whisper. “I want you to let go of this at some point. I feel terrible right now, but I want to feel better. I like to think I’ll find happiness somewhere along the line, but you…it’s like you’re happy here…in this place…this place of pain and sadness and darkness. This place of hate and frustration. You deserve better than this, Joey.” He sinks back into the cushion as sobs escape him. Years of pent up cries breaking through his mouth and nose, the squawks and squeals so similar to my own. My own eyes fail me, and more tears trickle down my cheeks. So many tears of late. So much reality. What happened to the dreams? What happened to the time we fantasised about being anyone and doing anything. Is this life? Is it one heartache followed by another, with constant question marks littered in-between? Placing my hand on his shoulder, I lean into him and whisper into his ear. “It’s okay. We’ll get through this. Together.” I hold my best friend as the letter that sparked this sits between us. Her handwriting. Her I love yous and empty words. I refer to her like Joey does his mother. I can’t imagine holding on to hate and frustrations like this for so many years, but maybe this is how it is. I don’t know what I think. I don’t think I care. I’m too tired to, and all I wish to do is help my best friend get through this, so he can help me get through it too. At some point, I must face B’s letter and choose to reply or not. Choose to forget, or to cling with tight fingers. Choose to care if she writes again. Choose to believe our love was real, and, if everything else was a lie, that this, at least, was true. NOVEMBER 27th - LEEDS’ TRAIN STATION: A few months ago, I hated this place. Open spaced and far too vast, I froze and shivered on the platform most evenings, desperate to return home. Each morning, I pushed and forced myself in-between shoulders, bags and rolling suitcases. Everyone rushed. Everyone had to get to where they were heading in an instant. I hated this place. I loathed it. Yet I’m here right now because I can be, and in some weird and strange way, I miss it. Even when I lived in Leeds, I knew each platform well, and each departure time, too, for I always had reason to return home, if not for my parents, to strum away in the band room. For the first time in years, I don’t need to be here, and for this reason alone I want to be. I need to be, as I hold this thin envelope between my fingers, rubbing the stamp she licked, pressed and prodded. Maybe I’m here because I’ve always found this station a lonely place. I don’t think I can read this surrounded by others. Hordes of folk pass me by, but no matter how busy and hectic this bland station is, it remains lifeless and worthless. It isn’t the first time I’ve read one of B’s letters here, or a book, or written a letter of my own. Drowned in echoes, I’m a quiet hush in a sea of shouts. Loud ding-dongs as another train fails to arrive on time; moaning and groaning passengers, sick and tired of the same old excuse; rattling suitcase wheels, and squeaks of rubber shoes on concrete floors; gusts of wind trapped under the roof, as they swirl and hurl their way towards me, under me, through me. White noise, the lot of it. Where I should struggle to focus, I find it easier to lose myself here than alone in a quiet room. Somewhat peaceful, but not, and the perfect setting to hate every word she has to say. Stroking my finger over my name, I picture her writing on her desk, strands of hair overlapping her eyes, as she huffs and blows them back into place. Never a quick writer, but a steady and purposeful one, full of poetic swoops and consistency. “I wish I had your handwriting,” I used to say, frowning at my own messy attempt. “It wouldn’t be the same if you had different handwriting,” she’d say, acting out a perfect portrayal of the perfect girl, but how long was this a lie? Was it ever the truth? I close my eyes and grasp the letter, tearing the lip open in an instantaneous swipe. “Just get it over with,” I whisper. November 25th From the train station Dear Aus, I never assumed this would be easy, but I couldn’t imagine it would be so hard. I know I shouldn’t say I miss you because that isn’t fair. But I do. I do miss you. I do love you. You’re still Aus, and although I presume you haven’t done much of it lately, I picture your smile when I lay alone in bed. Is that wrong? Maybe I should imagine your scowl instead because I assume that’s the face you pull when you think of me now. There’s so much I should say because you deserve better than silence, but I fear if you know it’ll only make matters worse. We all have secrets, but I have too many. Too many dark ones. Too many impossible ones. I do want you to know that I have fewer secrets from you than anyone else on this planet. I appreciate this more than ever before, and I realise how lonely my existence is without you. That’s all I do anymore…exist. I keep thinking about him, and you, and the kind of father you’ll one day be. Knowing I can only manage existence when he’s so close to existing, pains me. You will be a wonderful father one day, Aus, I promise you. I wanted you to be his father, and each day I cry because I still want you to be. But they’re lost tears, silly and foolish ones. Maybe in another life. Maybe if things were different before I met you. Maybe if we could turn back time somehow… But we can’t, and it pains me. I’m fed up with life and its cruel ways, as you’d be the perfect father to him. You’d love him and treasure him, and grow with him, like good men do. I know what it’s like to grow up without a father, and I hate how he needs to go through this, too. But he has to, because I also know what it’s like to have a terrible one, so if he can’t have you, he can’t have anyone. If you knew what I went through you’d understand. I need to protect him, because no matter what happens I cannot turn out like my mother and obsess over a man so ill-prepared for love and living. If you knew, you’d understand; I’m certain you would, because you’re a good man; a loving one; a genuine one; a one-of-a-kind one. These damn secrets drag me down. I should have told you more and let you in, I know that now. I should have told you about my father, and how he didn’t die when I was too young to remember. I do remember. For years, he was all I could remember. I spent so long forgetting him, but now he’s back. Every time I think about you or him, he’s there. I don’t think he’s ever truly left me. Every time I see a father hold a little girl’s hand, I ask myself, ‘Does she love her daddy, or does she despise him? Does she fear him? Does she wonder what she did wrong? Does she cry herself to sleep because she must be broken and worthless, because why else would he hurt her?’ I nearly told you about him once, when you played that one song your dad taught you. We sat on your bed as you lost yourself in the guitar’s strings, and I lost myself in you. I let go of the barriers keeping me upright, and from nowhere I began whispering, stuttering and preparing the whole story. I should have told you then, but I couldn’t because I was scared. I still am scared. I’m scared to let him out and back into the open, and I know you deserve more, but I can’t… You deserve to know he was a bad man, and that you’re nothing like him. That little boy resting inside me will never have a man like him, either. I’ll never let a man like him hurt me ever again, and if you knew, I’m sure you’d understand. I love you and miss you, but try and believe me when I say that me leaving is for the best. I never meant to hurt you, and I’m not sure how I ended up doing so. But I did. I know that now. The girl you used to love, Bx As soon as I devour the last syllable, I tear the sheet in half and drop it, watching as it floats to the floor, one sheet swaying left into the platform’s shadows, the other to the right and towards the track. “Why?” I say, pinching the bridge of my nose and shaking my head as tears swell in both eyes. “Why tell me this? Why leave me with nothing but more questions?” I stand up and step away from my seat, but immediately sit down again, blood coursing through my body. Nothing but mystery to add to a box already full of it. Half-truths, with the hope of what? Sympathy? Help? Understanding? How can I help you, B, when I don’t even know you? Still no apology. Still no acceptance that you’ve destroyed me, altered me and left me alone in the rubble. You chose to leave, fine; one day I’ll get over it and forget you because that’s what we do. But why write me and cling on to me, and keep me on your string? You chose to let me go, so why won’t you fucking let me go? And written from this train station, my train station. This isn’t yours, B. You’ve taken everything else, so the least you can do is leave me this cold, reverberant hell hole. You can’t have it. It’s mine. It’s where I come to read you and hate you, not wonder if you’re sitting on a bench like this one, or sat on this exact one yesterday…or the day before…or sometime last week. I close my eyes and stand up, lost in this blustery station with its consuming white noise. I feel each crackle and pop of distortion as I bubble with pain and utter desperation. “Excuse me,” says a voice to my right. It isn’t there. It isn’t real. I’m alone. I have to be. I can’t be around others, not now. “Excuse me, son,” says the voice again, coarse and husky. “Are you okay?” I open my eyes, the light bright and my head dizzy. “Come on, let’s grab you a seat,” says the man, guiding me down into the mesh-mettled bench. “I’m fine,” I say, not looking at him. Not wanting to look at him. Not wanting to look at anyone. “That you should be. Young lad like you. It’s old men like me who need help into chairs, not the other way round.” I shrug. I want to be alone, curled up in a corner with my guitar in hand, away from the world and its unrelenting pressure. Yet I want to be held and touched, comforted by someone I love, but who’s left? My mother, a woman I haven’t hugged in what seems like years? My father, a man I haven’t spoken to in weeks? Joey, who needs comfort far more than me? Who else? For years, I’ve placed all my eggs in B’s basket, forgetting about other people, other circles and other possibilities. “I don’t mean to pry, son, but when I see a young lad like you stand up, mutter to himself, and tear a piece of paper in half, I feel obliged to offer a helping hand. We’ve all been there.” I choke a laugh, gritting my teeth as I do. “A girl, I presume?” I bite my lip and clench my eyes shut. “Oh, yes,” says the man, his face still a mystery. “Only women have that sort of power. I know they say we can’t live without them, but we spend most of our lives doubting this.” Arching my chin, I face the track, the wind’s icy chill biting my nose and cheeks. “Yeah,” I sigh. “I’ve been married to my Sheila for thirty-five years next time around, and there isn’t a day goes by I don’t bite my bleeding lip.” I twist and look at him, catching his face for the first time. His grey, fluffy hair recedes around his forehead, and his blue eyes hide behind wrinkled cheeks. “Still, compared to the rest…” he trails off, laughing and showcasing his white teeth stained through a lifetime of living. “Now, I presume for you it isn’t a wife we’re talking about?” “No,” I sigh, shaking my head again, trying to rid the last five minutes from it. “Spent a long time thinking she would be, though,” I mutter. “Well, that’s the problem right there, you see. They make us believe they’re the romantic ones, with their rom-coms and Valentines and wedding day fantasies, but it’s us poor souls who get carried away and fall head over heels in love with them. If there’s one thing guaranteed to force a guy into making a stupid decision, it’s spending time with a girl he loves. “We can’t handle it. We’re not good at multitasking, you see. We can’t both love and make rational decisions at the same time. It’s one or the other, I’m afraid, and unfortunately for us, it’s usually the former.” I choke a laugh, following his aged neck down to his blue pinstriped shirt that peeks from under a battered beige fleece top. “Sounds like you’ve done okay.” “Why? Because I’ve been married to my Sheila for nearly thirty-five years?” I nod. “I’m an old man, son. I didn’t meet her until I was nearly thirty-five. I went through a lot of collateral damage before she came along.” “So, there’s hope yet then?” I say, sinking back into the metal bench. “Sure,” he says. “So long as you accept a life of biting your lip and questioning your sanity.” He keeps his gaze on mine for a second, a straight-laced face that can’t hide his cheeky grin. “I’m kidding. Kind of. Love’s hard. There’s never a period where it’s easy, just like having kids isn’t. But all the same, I couldn’t imagine a life without it.” “I think I can,” I say, pushing my hands into my pockets. “I think it’s safe to say I’m retired.” Laughing, he slaps his thighs. “That’s a good one. I think I retired ten times before I hit twenty-three.” He straightens his back and brushes down his blue corduroy pants. “You going to tell an old man what happened?” “Long story.” “Didn’t you hear? Old men love long stories.” “I doubt anyone could love this story.” “I doubt you can tell me anything I haven’t gone through myself.” I choke another laugh. “We have a doubter, I see.” “Let’s say I hope you haven’t gone through what I have.” He smiles, enticing me into more. “Look, it’s been an awful few months. That’s all. B and I were together for a long time, she did some dreadful things, and now I’m trying to get on with life.” “But you don’t know what life’s about anymore, right?” “Exactly.” “And the letter? From her, I take it?” I nod. “Always the worst, when they refuse to let go. I’ve been on both sides of the fence in my time. I’m not proud of stringing certain lasses along, especially knowing how painful it is when you’re kept on their leash. Either way, it doesn’t tend to end well for anyone.” “Do you ever escape it?” “The leash? That’s for you to decide,” he says, his cheeky smile on show once more. “The thing is, you can choose to blame them, or yourself, or someone else forever, but it doesn’t fix anything. At some point you have to forgive, because until you do, it’s impossible to forget.” “Are some things not unforgivable?” “Sure. But is anything worth imprisoning yourself over?” “Maybe. If it protects you from it happening again.” “Prison doesn’t protect you, son. It imprisons you. That’s it. That’s all.” “Yeah,” I whisper. “Look, I don’t know what she did, but I can imagine it hurts like hell. I once fell in love with a girl named Bethany, by far the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known. On the outside, that is. On the inside, it was never right. But, boy, I loved her, and for two years I thought we were happy. We got engaged and everything. I looked after her, because that’s what we did back in those days. I was ready to dedicate my life to her, and then one afternoon I came home from work and caught her in bed with my friend Jimmy. “I may not look like much these days, but back then I had a reputation. I used to box and play rugby, so Jimmy didn’t walk for a while afterwards. But as much as I battered him, she battered me worse, and for a long time I didn’t think I’d find anyone else. I didn’t want to. I mean, if you can’t trust the girl you love, and one of your best friends, who can you trust?” “How did you?” “Move on? I suppose I didn’t. Not consciously, anyway. I just kept getting up each morning, going to work, and one day it no longer hurt. I remember seeing Jimmy a year later, and didn’t feel much. I didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t want to say anything to him. I saw her a few years later, too, with another guy. I smiled at her and walked away, because she no longer had any power over me. So long as they have that power, you hurt. You cling to it. You blame it for all the bad things in your life, but what’s the point in blaming? It’s up to you to live and make something of yourself.” “So you forgave her?” “I suppose so. It’s not like I intended to or decided to, but time’s a great healer. And when you least suspect it, life tends to introduce you to a maze of opportunity. “Take my Sheila, for instance. I didn’t meet her for another decade, and to say I fell in and out of love in the meantime is a damn understatement. Sometimes I was the one who caused the pain, and sometimes it was them. It hurts either way, but one thing I learnt is it’s better to love than to sit at home alone, even if it’s short lived. Life is so static and slow without love, but flies past in a colourful blur of chaos with it. Take it from an old man, you don’t want a black and white existence, son. You need colour. You need chaos. You need love.” I look at my shoes and consider how slowly life’s ticked by recently. Compared to the fast-paced existence of school and university, this year feels more like a lifetime than a few hundred days. “It isn’t as easy as that,” I say. “You can’t just decide to forgive and forget, can you?” “Of course you can. This is your life, son. It isn’t easy, but nothing about anything ever will be. When you find your own Sheila, it won’t be easy. The journey you take until you find her won’t be easy either. But so long as you make sure it’s colourful and chaotic, who cares?” I take a deep breath, but he cuts me off. “Look, I remember how I felt during those low times when I was a young lad like you. I remember what it was like, waking up, going to work, going through the motions. You don’t realise how many precious seconds you waste. When you get to my age, you appreciate time’s value. You also appreciate what’s worthwhile, and what isn’t. “I was an angry kid. I was an angry young man. I got into fights, I made trouble. I spent far too much time hating people, but those who know me today would never guess it. Sheila finds it difficult to hear my old stories, because she can’t comprehend how I used to be like that.” His face softens, the cheeky smile no more. “You don’t get your time back. Hate is such a pointless emotion, and it brings no respite whatsoever. Just more hate. More pain. More slow, tedious, boring moments you never get to re-do. “Now, I don’t know what this B girl did to you, and I’m not saying she deserves forgiveness, in my experience, they rarely do. But this isn’t about her life. It’s about yours. The longer you hold on to her, and hate her, and cling to the pain and sadness and longing, the more time she steals from you. “Let her write those letters. Let her be the one who refuses to let go. Read them, burn them, throw them away, it doesn’t matter. Take control of your life and choose to live it. This city’s a playground for a young lad like you, and I don’t mean to sound like some old cliche, but you have your entire life ahead of you.” In an instant, I’m cold. “What if I don’t know how to let go? What if I’m not ready to?” I whisper, my upper lip quivering. “Do you want her back?” “No.” “Why?” “I couldn’t. Not after everything she did.” “Then you’re ready. It’s never easy to let go of someone you love, but let me ask you this, has the last few months been easy? Has hating her made you feel any better? Has it helped you move on?” “No,” I whisper. “It never will. I speak from experience, son. I’m a foolish old man who took far too long to figure life out. Thankfully, I did in time to meet my Sheila, and more importantly, allow myself to appreciate her; to fall in love, not just with her, but our life together. She drives me bat-shit crazy, but I wouldn’t re-do a second of it.” A slow and growing rumble rattles down the tracks, clunks turning to clashes, which finally transform into squeaks. A large carriage skids to a stop in front of us, matted in dirt, dust and grime. “Are you waiting for this train?” he asks. “No. I don’t have a train to catch.” He nods, leaning forward and struggling to his feet. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says, smiling. “I know it’s hard to see life’s magic when you’re stuck in its mud, but it’s there. It’s always there. Do your best to keep your eyes open and forgive. With forgiveness, you forget, and when you forget, you eventually move forward.” He brushes down his beige fleece and walks towards the track as a group of strangers descend on the platform. “Thank you,” I say, but he continues without looking back. As he steps onto the train, a few other bodies join him, but within seconds I’m alone on the platform again with only the whistling wind and icy chill; the ding-dong announcements and echoed conversations from nearby platforms; the squeaks and thunders of shoes on concrete; and the rumble of a train engine, a train that houses a man whose name I don’t know but whose life story I do. A few feet in front of me rests a piece of paper, and on it are words from a girl I once loved. DECEMBER 13th - JOEY’S PLACE: Jerry Douglas plays over the speakers, his festive-esque tones mixing with the twinkling lights on our fake Christmas tree. Joey refuses to play mainstream Christmas music at any time, in any place, under any circumstance. Each song goes through a strict process of validation, with the hint of a Christmas number one thrust into the cold night. Each year I shake my head as I discover the money he turns down for DJ gigs and party sets. “It doesn’t matter what the venue is, or how cool the people who go are - once you get past December 10th, people lose their minds,” he said a few days ago, his friend John confused as to why he would turn down over a thousand pounds. “After a certain point in the night, people request Cliff Richard and shit like that. The venue owners want it, too, because people drink more, buy more, and lose more of their goddamn minds.” It’s hard to argue with his reasoning, especially considering I hate the majority of Christmas songs too. “I can’t wait until tomorrow night,” Joey says, sitting beside me with a bottle of beer in hand. “You sure you’re okay to play?” “As far as I know I haven’t forgotten how to play the bass.” “You sure about that?” he says, pushing his bottle into my arm. “You were never that good to begin with.” “Is that so?” “Yep. I foresee you failing on epic levels.” “That’s one way to build my self-esteem. Good job.” Laughing, he wraps his ape-like hand around my thigh. “You know I love you. I’m serious though, I can’t wait for this gig. I never want to go so long without playing alongside you again.” “Oh, stop, you’ll make me blush.” “I’m serious. Playing without you sucked. That Dean kid was plain awful.” “Dean’s an amazing bassist.” “The hell he is,” he says, slurring his words. “He doesn’t hold a patch on Ausdylan Elvis Ashford.” “Cheers to that,” I say, raising my bottle and taking a sip. It’s strange to consider normality becoming normal once again, but each day seems to bring it closer. My chance encounter on platform 10B opened my eyes, and I wish I could thank the old man with the cheeky smile. I at least wish I knew his name, for his words did help. Although I’m not sure I’ll ever get over B or forget about this period in my life. How could I? I loved her for so long and built so much of my hopes and dreams around a life we would spend together. She gave me a son before taking him away, and I still dream about him. Just a few nights ago, I woke up on this very couch, sweating, panting and shivering all over. I held him and kissed him, but I can’t remember what he looks like. I hate thinking about him, and it’s him I fear I’ll be unable to let go of. Maybe time will heal my wounds and help me forget about B, but for a short period I was a father. How can you forget that? How can you let go? Why would I want to? An innate part of me, one I sense I’ll never have control over, loves him and wishes to see him…needs to hold him. Yet I fear I’ll never be able to let go of his conception, and how he’s borne of lies and deceit. I’d gaze at him with love and longing, but part of me would hate him. I’d blame him. I don’t know what happened with her father, or if it’s even true. Whether it is or isn’t, I’d hate to make an innocent little boy feel anything other than perfect. I couldn’t stand becoming that man, but how could I not if every time I saw him, I saw her…her dishonesty…the fact that whatever happens with the rest of my life, she put me through this pain. She gave me a son, forced me to fall in love with him and need him, and all the while knew one day she’d take him away from me; she knew he was never mine to begin with. “I shouldn’t get drunk tonight,” says Joey. “I have a busy morning tomorrow.” “Don’t get drunk then.” “But there are beers in the fridge with our names on them.” “There are about thirty beers in there. We can’t drink them all.” “Yes, we can.” “We can finish them tomorrow night.” “Nope. They have a best-before date.” “Yeah, in like three years’ time.” “That is your opinion. In my opinion, they go bad as soon as we give into sleep tonight.” I laugh, still a strange sensation that feels foreign in my throat. “Anyway, I can’t drink tomorrow night,” he continues. “I have a date.” “Oh, yeah? Who with?” “None of your business.” “None of my business?” I say, placing my bottle between my legs. “Since when do you hide your love life from me? Even when I beg you not to, you share.” “I’m a changed man.” “Since when?” “Since this beer,” he says, grinning at his empty bottle. “Speaking of which, I need another one.” He stumbles towards the kitchen. “What’s that?” he continues, pointing towards the door. “I don’t know.” “It looks like an envelope.” “Really? By a door? How shocking.” “Well, don’t you think it’s a tad late for them to do a mail drop?” Shrugging, I rest my head on the pillow and stare out of the window. Leeds blinks below, twinkling lights fluttering in the wind. Darkness hides so much of its features, but it’s a city I know at street level. “Aus?” says Joey, his voice softer and quieter now. “Yeah?” “I think you should take a look at this,” he says, walking towards me. I focus on his hands and the envelope he holds. “No,” I say, shaking my head. “I’m not reading any more of her fucking letters. No way. Throw it away.” He smiles, sitting on the arm of the couch. “You sure?” “I’m sure. I’m not doing it anymore. She just writes them to feel better about herself, but what’s the point? She doesn’t apologise. She doesn’t explain anything. In two weeks’ time it’ll be a new year, and with it, a new life.” I glance at the letter again, her handwriting no longer as lovely. “I’m proud of you, brother,” he says, rising to his feet and walking back into the kitchen. “And to mark this occasion, let’s burn the damn thing and open a new bottle of the good stuff. What do you say?” “Fine by me.” Slamming the letter on the granite counter, he sparks the oven to life. “Hold on a second,” he says, picking it back up. “There’s no stamp.” “I don’t care. Burn it.” “But there’s no stamp.” “So what, Joe. I don’t care. I’m not reading another one of her pointless letters. End of story.” “But if there’s no stamp, that means she was here. And recently. There was no letter on the floor when I came in an hour ago.” My shoulders and neck immediately tense, like they have so often in recent months. The thought of her puts my body on edge, another unrelenting barrage of pain, questions and never-ending wonderment. “It doesn’t matter,” I mutter. “I don’t care. Besides, she could have had someone else drop it off.” “Like who? She’s a ghost. Nobody’s seen her for months.” I shrug, curling my knees up on the couch and wrapping my arms around them. “And look at this,” he says, bringing the letter back to me. “The handwriting’s all smudged.” “Wonderful.” “Teardrops. She was crying when she wrote this.” “Could be rain.” “It isn’t raining.” “So? What are you getting at, Joe? Who cares if she was crying? You’re the one who said I shouldn’t read or reply to these letters in the first place, so what’s changed your tune?” “Nothing,” he sighs. “But she wouldn’t just come here. I know she’s the devil, but what if she’s in trouble? I think…maybe you should read it.” “Are you kidding me?” I yell, pushing my fingers into my forehead. “You, of all people, want me to read it? She’s crazy, Joe. There’s always going to be another letter, don’t you see? All she’ll do is play the victim and make us feel sorry for her, because she can’t stand the idea that we hate her, that I no longer love her, that I’ve let go of her. She won’t explain anything or apologise. She’ll just keep me on her leash for as long as I let her, and I’m fed up. I’m done. I refuse to be her puppet any longer.” “I know,” he says, perching next to me. “I know. You’re right. I know you’re right, but—“ “But nothing.” “But what if something’s wrong? Even after everything she’s done, she remains…look, I don’t know. I just couldn’t live with myself if she was in trouble.” “Then you read it,” I say, running my hand through my knotted hair. He unbuttons his top button and loosens his tie. “Maybe I should.” “You’re unbelievable…” I mumble. “Look,” he says, grasping my arm. “A pregnant girl out in the cold like this. Nowhere to turn…” he trails off. “I couldn’t live with myself, and I know you. I know you. You’d never forgive yourself, either.” “Fuck,” I yell, clenching my bottle tight. “When does this end? Every time I think things might be getting back to normal, another one of these damn letters arrive. At some point we have to let go.” “I know. You’re right, and everything you’re saying…I get it. But something about this doesn’t seem right. I’ll read it on my own, and if it’s nothing but the usual crap, I’ll burn it.” “And what if it isn’t okay? What if something is wrong?” “We’ll deal with it. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it together.” I say nothing, clinging to the music and the gentle strumming of Eric Clapton. “Okay…just watch TV or something,” he says, sitting on one of the kitchen stools surrounding the granite countertop. Hands shaking, I push my bottle to my lips, relishing the alcohol’s taste as it trickles down my throat. I stare into the distance, out of the window and at Leeds’ darkening sky. I focus on nothing in particular, whatever is in front of me, a blur, as my mind thrusts from side to side. I consider the platform and its icy chill, and the wise man with his wise words who encouraged me to forgive, because where there’s forgiveness there’s an opportunity to forget. I want so much to forget her and everything she brought with her. I know there were good times, but I don’t want them anymore. I wish to erase her completely: the good, the bad, and the in-between. I can’t cling to the good times because they’re tainted with lies and deception. I never knew her, and I don’t want to know her. I spent years dedicating myself to her in a bid to understand her, all of her. A new year rests on the horizon, and with it, a new life with a new job, new dreams and new unknowns. Eventually, a new girl. A real life. Love, the kind of love my parents have, because I refuse to let her steal that from me. Fatherhood, because like she said herself, I will be a good father. Not to him. Not now. But one day. To someone. Alongside someone special and someone who isn’t B. Whatever exists on that piece of paper doesn’t change that. I’m over her. I have to be over her. I’m ready to be over her. Taking a deep breath, I twist to face Joey, noticing his tears in an instant. Sparkling under the lights, his cheeks glisten. Pale and white, he’s fixated on the page. “Joey,” I say. Glancing to me, he closes his eyes and wipes his face. “Joey.” “I’m sorry, brother.” “What is it? Is the baby okay?” He says nothing, walking away from the counter to the huge room window. “I’m sorry, Aus,” he whispers. “You have to read this for yourself.” “What is it?” I say, standing up and striding towards him. “Joey, what’s happened?” He doesn’t look at me, instead bowing his head. “I’m sorry. I need to grab some air.” Slumping off, he heads to the door and leaves without his jacket. I’m frozen, glancing between the door and the letter that rests neatly on the countertop. I edge closer to it, cautious and wary, because I don’t know what to expect. I’m over her. I have to be over her. I’m ready to be over her, but… December 13th In the coffee shop downstairs Dear Aus, This is my last letter. I promise. Deep down, I hoped you may reply and show some semblance of forgiveness, but I know that was wrong. I appreciate it will never happen, and so I must let go, not just for you, but for me, too, and the little boy who’s oh-so close to life. I don’t think I can let you go until I explain things to you. You deserve the truth, and although I can’t share everything with you, I can share enough. I thought I’d die with this secret. It’s haunted me for so long I can barely accept it’s real. It feels more like a dream, or an old movie I watched as a child with my mother. I’m not sure how much I even remember, or how much sense any of it will make. Every time it enters my mind, I push it down. I let it devour me, eat me, and haunt me, but so long as it’s down there, I’m fine. Only, I’m not fine. I’ve never been fine, and I can’t push it down any longer, but I don’t know who else to turn to. You’re all I’ve ever had. I have to tell someone, because tomorrow I may wake up as a mother, and it terrifies me. I’m terrified of the monster I am, and I think I finally accept this, but cannot handle it. I don’t want to be a vacant, absent mess like my own mum. I want to be a good mother. I don’t want him to know how sad and empty his mummy is. Maybe if I tell you, I’ll be able to finally move on, and maybe you’ll understand enough to move on yourself. I know you’ll hate me. You deserve to hate me. You need to hate me, but above all, you need to forget me. I’m sorry, sweetie. I really, truly am. When I used to go to school as a little girl, I noticed all the happy mothers that dropped off their kids and picked them up a few hours later. My friends would run to their mums and hug them, and they’d walk off and hold hands and talk. I couldn’t understand why my own mother wasn’t like them, or why she was so sad. I could never please her. She’d smile for a second - like when we used to watch old black and white movies together, snuggled under a blanket - but it would slip away from her like soap through fingers. I hated her for it because I didn’t understand why she wasn’t happy. Mothers and daughters are supposed to be happy, yet all I did was make my mummy cry. I figured it was my fault, that I was a bad girl and too naughty. I wanted to be good, but I couldn’t figure out how. When I was seven, I realised it wasn’t me who made my mother cry. For the first time, I saw my father hit her, and it aged me in a moment. One minute I was seven, the next, an old woman. I didn’t understand it at the time, or what he was doing, or why he was doing it. But I knew it was bad. I knew it was wrong. I knew it was the reason my mummy cried and always looked so sad. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she watched me stand in the doorway, me screaming and crying out for her, but she couldn’t move, or hold me or comfort me, because he had his big, disgusting hand wrapped around her neck. He pinned her to the wall, screaming in her face as she looked past him the entire time, looking straight into me eyes as if to say, “it’s okay. I love you.” She tucked me in that night and said everything was fine. That he didn’t mean it. That he loved her, and he loved me, too. “His way of showing how much he cares”, she said. I knew it wasn’t okay, but I loved him because he was my father. He never touched me. He never raised his voice at me, but I could always tell when he’d hit her. Something changed. I saw my mother in a new light, and I saw her pain, understood her sadness. He never hit her in the face. Never left a mark so others could see. But I saw. I saw her arms and chest and legs. I saw her eyes, and the secrets they held. I suddenly had a secret to keep, and I’ve spent the rest of my life gathering them…keeping them…suffocating under the weight of them. “Your daddy loves you,” she’d say. “He loves me, too. Don’t tell anyone. Other grown-ups won’t understand.” I began to hate him, yet at the same time, I loved him because he was my daddy. He played with me. He loved me. Where mum was sad and vacant, he brimmed with energy and pride for his little girl. On the outside he must have seemed like the perfect father, always playing with me at the park and making me laugh, hugging me. When he did hug me, I flinched. Every time he came near me, I held a breath. I battled this inner war, unable to decide between love and hate. He never hit me and was a good father to me, but I feared him, and hated how he made my mother sad. I couldn’t understand why he did it, and I suppose I still can’t. Things changed when I turned ten. For a few months, everything seemed to be okay. Mum began to smile, and I could tell he didn’t hit her anymore. I thought that maybe everything might be okay. She regained a glint in her eye, the same sparkle as when we watched those old movies. So did he. He didn’t seem so angry, but when he looked at me it wasn’t the same. My nightmares today always begin the same, the creaking door slowly opening. “Hey, sleepy girl,” he’d say. “You go back to sleep. Daddy loves you.” The first time he did it I cried into my pillow. The other times, I closed my eyes until it was over. I closed my eyes and emptied my mind, numbing the world and pushing every thought deep, deep down. Every time a thought popped up, I pushed it. Every time I felt pain, I pushed it. All of a sudden, I had a secret of my own, not one of my mother’s. In some ways, I felt special. I can’t recall the detail, and I hope I never will. I know I should have told you at some point, because I do love you and trust you, but the truth is, I refused to believe it was real. Deep down, I knew I was keeping a secret, hiding and running away, but it was easier than facing the truth. Because the truth means reliving the detail, and I cannot live with the detail, Aus. I can’t do it. I’m so embarrassed and ashamed, although I’m not sure why. After all, it wasn’t me doing it. I always thought I must be to blame, because how broken must a child be for a father to do that to his daughter? He was supposed to love me, but he must have hated me to do what he did. Not once…so many times, a mere blur. I didn’t know if it would ever stop. He said it was his way of proving his love to me, and that it made him feel so happy he didn’t get angry at Mummy anymore. He didn’t hit her after that, and it was because he loved me so much. I felt special because I was protecting my mum and making my dad happy all at the same time. But I also felt broken, worthless and empty, and the only way I felt better was by pushing everything down…down…as far down as I could push. Shortly before my eleventh birthday, my mother caught him. If seeing him hit her for the first time stole my innocence, and the first time he touched me stole my childhood, it was the moment she caught us when I lost everything. It was dark like all the other nights, just him and me alone in my small bed. All of a sudden, white light filled the room, my stinging eyes struggling to see my mother’s outline in the doorway. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t cry. She seemed so calm, but in an instant she moved across the room and reached for an old wooden bookend sitting on my nightstand. Shaped like an elephant, I loved it. My grandmother gave it to me when I was five or six years-old, and she said it would protect me from monsters at night. That night it did protect me from the worst monster of all, because before my father had chance to escape from my bed she struck him. She only hit him once, and she didn’t seem angry whilst she did it. So calm. So sure of herself. She didn’t say a word, and before I knew what happened, she scooped me out of bed and held me close. I didn’t realise blood covered half my pyjamas or my entire right arm. I didn’t know he was dead. She just held me then cleaned me up in the bathroom, and told me everything would be okay. That no matter what happened, she loved me, and everything would be okay. But nothing was ever okay again. She died that night, just like I did. The secret was too big, and neither of us have ever been able to escape it. I don’t remember much afterwards. I suppose I was in shock, and we’ve never spoken about it since. She told me the next morning, “Beatrice, I love you so much. I know you have more secrets than any girl should ever have to keep, but I must ask you to keep one more. Your father won’t hurt either of us again, and Uncle John is going to help us get away from here so we can start a new life. A good life. One where we can be happy and safe. “But he can only help us if neither of us tell anyone about what happened last night. Ever. Can you do that for me, sweetie? Can you keep one final secret?” Nodding and hugging her, I kept our biggest secret of all. Uncle John was in the police, so he was able to help us cover everything up. I was too young to know the details, and I never asked about them since. He told me what to say and what not to say, but to be honest, none if it mattered. I’d already blocked the night out, and so many others before it. I kept thinking about my mother’s words, when she said we could start a new life. A good one. One where we could be happy. When we moved to Halifax that’s what I decided to do. I’d be happy. I’d smile. I’d be chatty and popular and everything I could never previously be, because I had this dark shadow consuming me. Where I was once too shy and broken to talk and smile, I’d laugh and work hard and make friends with everyone. I’d be happy on the outside even if I remained dead within. But you, Aus, you did make me happy. You helped me find love when I didn’t think it possible. I have too many secrets, and many of them are far too dark to share; I collect secrets like other girls collect shoes. You genuinely made me happy, but I’d replace my old fears and nightmares with new ones. I can’t tell you everything, Aus. I know you deserve more, but trust me, you don’t want the truth. You don’t want to know everything I know. I’ve always been broken, but you honestly helped me. You’ve given me hope that one day I’ll be able to escape and replace my nightmares with happiness and dreams and fantasies. With this little boy on the verge of life, I now know I can’t run away from these nightmares. I cannot continue to push these secrets down. It’s no longer about me protecting myself; I need to protect him. I can’t be this version of B anymore, and I can’t remain here. Just like when we moved to Halifax, I have a chance to start a new life. A good life. A happy life. I’m not sure what that consists of, to be honest, but I have a genuine reason to figure it out. I’m just sorry I had to hurt you along the way, and I’m sorry you have to live the rest of your life with this secret. I will always love you, Ausdylan Elvis Ashford, but the time has come to let go. The girl you used to love, Bx DECEMBER 29th - THE PUB: Over the years, I’ve sat on every bench, chair, and stool in this pub. Alongside B, or opposite Joey, or sharing a table with my parents, I’ve talked about music and life and silly ideas that may never happen. It’s where Joey tends to muster dreams, dreams that don’t start life as my own, but soon become part of my fantasies. In a few days a new year will begin, and with it, a new version of me that I must discover. A new job, somewhere. Words to write, after far too long. Music to play; more gigs on their way. Countries to see, people to meet, and a true sense of freedom to set me free. I don’t know what tomorrow holds, or the day after, but I must escape yesterday. The past haunts, but I’m not unique in this regard. Every person I meet has a past, some of it filled with good, other aspects bad. I have much to be thankful for, but a great deal to regret. I may never forget, and may live a lifetime before I heal, but I must move forward, because what’s the alternative? The type of Christmas music I hate plays over the speakers; in a few days it will disappear for another ten months. It’s not quite Christmas anymore, but it still feels hopeful and merry. The old men around the bar smile as they drink, and Harriet wears a chunk of holly in her hair; as she has done for a week. I love Christmas and the perk it brings to each step. It reminds me of special times and wonderful memories of food, of family dancing and singing. This year, it crawled past in secret, fearful of whisking my daydreams away. I sat in the dark for hours after reading her final letter. Turning the pages over, they remained on the countertop the entire time. I feared them, shed tears over them, because no matter what happens and has happened, I love her and care for her, but sense I can never allow myself to be in love with her again. Joey didn’t return home, and I didn’t see him until we had our gig the next day. We played and got through it, but it wasn’t the same. Each time we sit with one another and drink and talk, it isn’t the same. When our families got together on Christmas Eve, like we always do, it wasn’t the same. It didn’t involve B for the first time in years, but only Joey and I truly know why. The pain since is different to the emotions of recent months. I hurt for her, but not because of her. I keep thinking about Joey as a young boy, the person he was before his mother left, just afterwards, and the guy he’s become since. I wonder about the man he may have become if she’d stuck around. I keep thinking about how unfair this all is, and how we don’t get to choose who we enter this world to, and who guides us along the way. B didn’t deserve a father like him, and Joey shouldn’t have had to deal with a mother that left. What about me? What makes me so special to have parents that love one another and stay together? I try to focus on the future and the potential of tomorrow each time my mind slips back into the chasm, but how can we expect to craft our own path when some of us were never given a hope to begin with? To forgive is to forget, but what if we’re unable to? You can push it and bury it, but I’m not sure we can forget everything. Maybe we’re not supposed to. I lift my pint to my lips and savour another sip, each mouthful of hops and barley a welcome visitor in my tummy. I hate music like this, but it reminds me of happier times, easier times, and times when I used to watch my mother dance around the tree as she placed ornaments amongst its branches. Memories of my father pouring cocktails on weekday nights, dressed in sweater vests and the shirts he reserves for meaningful occasions. When Joey would stay up with me and my parents for hours, chatting about music and our future world domination. These ideals are once again in reach, the two of us capable of anything we wish. “Sorry I’m late, brother,” he says, dashing towards the table and hanging his thick tweed jacket over the chair. “You ready for another drink?” “Yeah, same again, please.” He hops over to the bar and leans across it, talking to Harriet as she prepares two fresh glasses. For years, I likened Joey and B to one another, two confident individuals with the conviction to achieve their dreams. Where I stuttered and hesitated, they stuck out their chests and refused to stand still. They were strong and needed nobody, whereas I was weak and needed anybody - my parents, her, Joey, him… I never imagined they were similar in such a manner, though. Haunted by their past, they sabotaged the present. They clung to their future, but couldn’t fathom what it looked like. Without appreciating what you desire, how can you possibly reach for it? “Here you go,” he says, placing two overflowing pints on the table and sitting opposite me. “I think I’m just about ready for New Year’s Eve. What about you? Ready to put an end to this year with our greatest gig yet?” “I’m ready to end this year no matter what the gig looks like,” I say, half laughing to myself. He smiles and lifts his glass. “I’ll drink to that.” I focus on his blue eyes, bluer than a few days ago, with less red in their corners and dark skin beneath. After speaking about the letter, we agreed not to talk about it again, although I sense this didn’t stop him thinking about it…dwelling…searching. “You seeing your parents later?” he asks. “Yeah. Heading over after these drinks.” “That’s good. I’m glad you’re spending more time with them.” “You bored of me?” “No more than usual.” He flashes that dreadful smirk. “It’s good, though. Not just for you, but for them, too.” “Yeah. I can’t imagine how worried they’ve been.” “You needed time, brother. They understand.” “I know, but I still feel bad.” “Don’t. In a few days it’s a new year, and they can have their old Aus back.” “Maybe.” “Maybe?” “Who knows what next year holds?” I say, smiling and enjoying another mouthful of beer. “Well, well, well, does this mean you’ve decided what you’re doing in January?” “Not exactly, but I don’t think it involves living with either you or them.” He laughs, planting his large mitt on the table. “I should be offended, but I think I’ll be proud instead. You going to move to Leeds with me?” “I don’t know yet. Who knows…maybe I’ll travel for a while.” “Oh really…where to?” “Who knows?” “Can I come?” “No.” Laughing, he reaches for my wrist and squeezes it. “Good. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than travelling to foreign lands with a miserable git like you.” He winks, straightening up and brushing down his grey waistcoat. “I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t made my mind up yet, but whatever I do, I think it needs to be new. A new job. A new place. A new outlook on life…or maybe an old outlook.” I brush my fingers through my hair, it longer now than ever before. “And a new haircut. Definitely a new haircut.” “Now, that is a good idea,” he says, raising his glass once more. “What about you? What’s next for Joseph Johnson?” “Same as ever. Why would someone as amazing as me change?” Laughing and shuffling in his seat, he takes a deep breath. “But who knows, maybe next year will hold a few new things for me, too.” He takes another breath. “What is it?” “I kind of have something to tell you.” “Sounds ominous.” “It’s no big deal, but at the same time…it is.” “Pray tell.” “Well, I have a date tonight.” “Another one? Not with the same girl?” He nods, inhaling a large mouthful of beer. “It is. In fact, it’s been going on for a while.” “Yeah? Who is she?” His eyes flutter to the bar and he grits his teeth. “No way,” I say. “Harriet? You’re kidding me.” Continuing to grit his teeth, he sways his head. “Since when? How? How have you—“ “I was going to tell you, but it happened when everything went down. I bumped into her one afternoon in Leeds, and we just went for a walk. It was nice, so we met for drinks. Things seemed different around her. I don’t know what it was, but I guess with you and B moving on and starting a…well, you know…I suppose I let my guard down around her for once. “There wasn’t much to say, which is why I didn’t tell you at first. Then B dropped her bomb, and…” He trails off, stretching his fingers on the table. “I freaked. I figured if B could do what she did, there was no way I could trust anyone. “This is Harriet, after all. If I was ever to let anyone in, it would be her, and I don’t think I could handle it if she let me down like that. So, I didn’t speak to her. I avoided her and treated her like I always have, but when those letters began to arrive…I don’t know… “I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what I wanted. I still don’t. I know I have to make it up to her, that’s for sure. She doesn’t trust me yet, but I don’t think I don’t trust her, either. I suppose I don’t trust myself.” He takes a deep breath and rubs his hands down his face. “I don’t know, brother. The more I thought about B, and my mother, and you, the more I thought about Harriet.” He sighs. “I’m tired of keeping hold of all that baggage. B did, and look where it took her. It turned her into someone she isn’t, and I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to keep pushing people away. And it’s shit, because she doesn’t deserve that past, just like I don’t deserve mine. But it is what it is, and I guess I now realise I’ve never let go of it all. “I pushed it down and pretended it didn’t exist, you know? I’ve just hurt people and thought about myself, as if the world owes me something.” He looks at me, tears glistening through his stare. “The world doesn’t owe me. I can’t use my past to make excuses for the present. I don’t want to do it anymore, and I’m not sure if Harriet’s the right girl, or if this is the right time, and I feel bad because this is a terrible moment to unload all this on to you, but—“ “Joe, are you kidding me? I’m happy for you. I’m proud of you. These last few months have been hard for you, too, and I’m—” “I know, but—“ “No buts. This is good, Joey. Seriously, I’m happy for you. She’s a great girl. I think the two of you will be great for each other.” “Yeah?” I laugh, raising my own glass now. “Yes. One hundred percent.” “I thought you’d be pissed at me.” “Why would I?” “I don’t know…I was overthinking everything, I guess.” “You’re an idiot, Joe. Anyway, tell me more.” “Like what?” “How did you get her back? Are you a couple now? Are you together?” “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?” he says, puffing his cheeks. “I’m just trying to take it a day at a time and not fuck it up. And I want to tell you now that she knows some of the stuff that’s gone on recently, but I haven’t told her everything. I’m sorry, and I know I promised I wouldn’t—“ “It’s okay.” “She wouldn’t give me the time of day, so I had to be honest with her and let her in. I had to unload some of it because it was driving me insane, but I do feel bad—“ “Joey, it’s fine. I understand.” “You sure?” “I do. I promise.” His shoulders relax and he empties his lungs with a long breath. “Okay, good. I know I shouldn’t worry about telling you all this, but I’m an—“ “Idiot?” “Yeah.” He laughs and finishes his drink. “I’ve no idea what I’m doing, brother. She keeps asking me questions, and telling me stories about her childhood, and what she wants to do with her life, and get this…we haven’t even had sex yet.” He shakes his head. “I haven’t gone this long without it since I was sixteen.” Laughing, I finish my own drink. “Sounds like an adulthood relationship to me. Congratulations.” “Enough of the r word, thank you.” He takes his old tatty pipe out of his pocket and sticks it between his lips. “I don’t know what to think about it all. It feels nice, kind of, but there’s so much silence. We’ll be talking and then the conversation ends, and all she does is look at me and smile. What am I supposed to do with that?” “Smile back,” I say. “Enjoy being with her.” “I do enjoy being with her, but…I don’t know…” “It sounds like you like her, Joe.” “You think?” “Yeah.” I picture his fidgeting form as they watch a movie together, fully clothed, and with nothing but conversation awaiting him. “You’ll get used to it. Soon, you’ll love those silent moments. You’ll appreciate them above everything else.” “Really?” I nod. “Are you seeing her tonight?” “Yeah, she finishes…” He looks at his watch. “Any minute now. We’re going to see some god-awful romantic comedy, which, after reading the reviews, sounds utterly terrible.” He shakes his head. “She doesn’t even like movies like that. I think it’s a test…or her way of torturing me.” Planting my hand on his shoulder for once, I smile. “You’ll do fine. And please don’t worry about me. I’m happy for you - for the both of you. You’re the best guy I know, Joe, and Harriet’s a great girl. I always hoped you’d figure it out together, and after these last few months…well, the perfect time to, if you ask me.” “Cheers. I want you to know this changes nothing. I’m here for you, no matter what. You hear me?” “I know. We’ll be fine, don’t worry.” I line our empty glasses next to each other. “Right now, it seems someone else awaits you,” I continue, motioning behind him as Harriet approaches. “Hi, Aus,” she says, standing next to Joey’s shoulder. “Hey, Harriet. I hear you finally gave this one a chance.” Smiling, she bites her lip and places both hands around the back of his neck. “He’s on probation.” “I’m on probation? Are you kidding me? I’m not some inmate on trial, you know.” “How’s he doing?” I ask. She shrugs, scrunching up her nose as she does. “Oh, come on, I’m doing okay.” “Yeah. He’s doing okay.” She plants a kiss on his neck. “It feels like I’m teaching a toddler how to sit still at times, but he’s doing okay.” Rolling his eyes, he places both his palms over her hands. “Brother, I hate to do this to you, but I have to go watch some terrible film.” “It’s fine. Go. Have fun.” “I won’t,” he replies. Harriet pinches his ear. He flinches and smiles. “Fine, I’ll try and have fun. I’m getting pretty good at faking it,” he continues, moving closer to me. “This is why you’re on probation. Anyway, I’ll wait for you outside, okay?” “Sure. Sure. I’ll be out in a minute. I just have to give him something first.” “No rush,” she says, stepping away from the table. “Have a good night, Aus. I’ll see you on New Year’s Eve.” “You too, Harriet,” I say, watching as she walks away. Joey places his tweed jacket on his knee and searches its pockets. “There was something else, and I hate to do this to you, but…” He places it on the table, another envelope, smaller than the others, but with her usual handwriting on its front. “I was going to throw it away last night, but…it isn’t my place to. If you want me to get rid of it, I will. I haven’t read it or anything, so whatever you want me to do—“ “It’s okay, Joe. I’ll read it,” I say, taking a deep breath. “You sure?” I stare at it, unsure if I am. Unsure if I ever will be. “Yeah. In a few days, it’s a new year, a new start. Whatever’s in this letter doesn’t change that. Besides, I think the two of us could do with a little closure.” He nods, biting his lip and closing his eyes. “You going to reply to it?” “I don’t know.” He nods again and stands up. “I haven’t read it. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want to. Is that okay?” “Of course it is.” “I’m here for you, brother. Whatever you need, I’m here, but I can’t read any more of them.” “It’s okay. I think this one should remain between B and me,” I whisper as he stands up. Nodding, he turns and walks away, out of the pub’s large doors and into the winter’s evening where Harriet awaits. A new chapter for him, as well as for me. I pick the envelope up and twist it in my fingers, my chest beating and fingertips shaking. Taking a deep breath, I tear it open and remove the glossy card inside. No paper. No note. A single photograph of a tiny baby boy wrapped in a blue blanket. Wearing a white hat with blue spots dotted all over it, his hands rest on his chest slightly below his chin; his eyes are closed, he looks fast asleep. Everything but his head, hands, and upper chest is hidden below the blanket. I looked at this boy mere months ago, as he lay inside his mother and grew each day. My son, but not. He never will be, but gazing at the photograph, I need him. I dreamt about this boy, and imagined holding him moments after he entered the world. I read the baby books and listened to my father’s stories, preparing myself to fall in love the minute I laid eyes on him. He isn’t mine, so I shouldn’t love him, but I do. He shares B’s nose, and the way his upper lip rounds at the top reminds me of her. Having spent so many hours losing myself in her face, it’s impossible not to see her in him. What others features does he share with her? Does he have her eyes, or some other guy’s? Tears drip down each of my cheeks. They’re not for her, they’re for him. I love him, and wish to hold him, to kiss his lips and tiny toes. I want to be there for him, because I spent so many nights dreaming about him. Even after she broke me, I continued to fall asleep with him on my mind; I’d wake up to the thought of him and who he’ll grow up to be. Skin blotchy and red, he’s new and fresh; a few hours old, maybe, or possibly less. I hope B’s mother was there, and I hope this perfect boy helps bridge the gap between them that her father created. His fingertips round at the edges; he clings to his white vest. He lies so still and peaceful, unaware of where he is, what to expect, and everything else the world has in store for him - the good, and the bad. My eyes sting, but for the first time in a long time, it isn’t painful. They’re happy tears, tears of relief. He’s here, and he’s safe, and despite everything she’s done, I wish I could hold her and say, “Well done. You did it. You protected him. Everything will be fine.” Twisting the card in my hand, I drop it as soon as I see. Dylan E Ashworth Born 27th December at 6:03am He may not share my ears, hair or goofy nose, but he shares part of my name. Not hers or mine, but his. A new name for a new person, and one free from the past. Whatever happened between his mother and me is unimportant. What that man did to B, irrelevant. His life starts now, and my past…and B’s past…and his grandma’s…and Joey’s…they hold no bearing on the adventure before him. It’s his to explore and enjoy. I want to be part of it, but at the same time, I don’t. How can I? I’d hurt him and prevent him from moving forward, because each time I look at him, I’ll see her. He’ll remind me of what she did. Of who she is. Of who she isn’t. I want to forgive, but I can’t. I’m not sure I’m ready to, and I fear I never will. It’s easy to say, and with hindsight, maybe it’s easy to do, but in the moment…right here, right now…to forgive her? Could she forgive her father? Could Joey forgive his mother? Maybe forgiveness allows us to forget, but maybe we’re not supposed to forget it all. Maybe we’re destined to live our lives with certain hauntings, and it isn’t about forgetting, forgiving, or pushing deep down, but accepting and moving on bit by bit. I slump in my stool, closing my eyes and seeing him in the dark void. I need him. I love him. I want to hold him and whisper in his ear, “I love you. I always will.” Not just today, every day. Opening my eyes, I search the pub. So many familiar faces, hiding stories and secrets deep below. People I’ve spoken to, but do not know. Old men on stools and guys leaning against the bar; a group of women on benches, and a couple in the corner either side of a guitar. Me, alone, in the middle of it all, behind a table meant for four. A glossy piece of card in one hand, an empty envelope in the other. I read her handwriting and try to focus on the happy times. The times we read to each other. The times we sat in this pub, talking and lounging, wasting away the hours. The times we lay in bed, dreaming, loving, being… So many good times, and not that long ago. Nothing but good times. I want to cling to them and only think of them, but I can’t. It would be a lie, just like she’s lived most of her life. In the same vein Joey has, forcing down his fears and assuming he’d forgotten. I haven’t forgotten. Tears continue down my cheek as I drop both envelope and photograph. I reach into my old satchel and pull out a pen and notebook. I tear out a page and lay it flat on the table. I stare at it for a while… I need closure; I need to say goodbye. There’s so much I could say, maybe things I should say, but I’m fearful of saying anything at all. I need to say something, if not for me, her, or us…for him. He deserves my tears. He’s earned my love. I do love him, and with pen perched between fingers, I place it against the paper. Not long ago, this was my home, to write, create and express. So much has changed, but I’m still me. I’ll always be me. B will always be B. This little boy will always be who he’ll be. With a flick of the wrist I begin, like I have so many times in the past.


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