As promised, here is the first installment of my ‘Little Fictions’ series. It doesn’t have a title yet, so for now, I’ll just call it Story 1.
Laura wasn’t sure what she was doing there, sitting in a room full of people she barely knew, next to a man she had once found intriguing but now just irritated her. James had asked her to his sister’s wedding six months ago, on the exact day she had been planning to break up with him. She’d been about to spin the cliched break up lines – ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, ‘I think we should stop seeing each other’, ‘I’m sorry, it’s just not working’ – when he came out with it; “Lau, will you come to Sarah’s wedding with me?” Like a female floppy-hair-era Hugh Grant, or a David-Mitchell-on-Peep-Show, she’d foolishly said yes out of a sense of embarrassment, and now here she was, wearing a dress she’d found in the back of her wardrobe. No hat – she may not have been in Edinburgh anymore, but it was still far too windy to wear anything that might blow off and be carried away by a gust. Embarrassment was not a good reason to accept an invitation, but it could have been worse – if she’d refused, Laura would have had to explain why, and she didn’t fancy trying to explain to James that she didn’t much like his family, and she certainly didn’t feel like telling him that she didn’t much like him either.
Laura could feel James’ mother, Peggy, judging her – she had refused to go to the ‘recommended stylist’ and pay over the odds for a new haircut that would just look the same as if she’d run a brush through her hair in the car on the way there. She knew you were meant to make an effort for a wedding, or at least look like you had, but Laura wasn’t convinced by this. Her own mother would have called her a rebellious teenager, even though she was in her late twenties, but nothing made her want to put on a pair of Doc Martens and dye her hair bright pink more than that did. She knew there was a perversity and a stubbornness to that – call me a rebel? I’ll show you rebel! – and besides, if she did dye her hair pink she’d most likely get fired from her incredibly boring but well paid job in Edinburgh as an accountant. Pink hair and accountancy were not things she often associated with each other.
She was probably also persona non grata for not attending the hen do. She had mumbled something about having too much on, and having to work. Technically, this was true, but she knew that even if it hadn’t been, she would have used exactly the same excuse. It was not an excuse that would work for a wedding – the only things that would have done was pretending a close family member had died, and she didn’t want to tempt fate, and getting hospitalised, but that seemed a bit far to avoid a social situation, however much she didn’t want to go.
Laura didn’t know why she hadn’t just said ‘no, I don’t want to go to Sarah’s wedding. I don’t actually want to go anywhere with you’ when he’d asked her, or at any point in the last six months. Now was probably too late, sitting in the registry office with just minutes to go before Sarah walked down the aisle with her father Frank. Inevitably she would be in a stylish white dress and everyone would be in tears as some song, probably by Justin Bieber or Bruno Mars, played. ‘Everyone’ would definitely include the bride, James, who was two years older than his sister and had adored her since she was born, and the very teary woman sat two rows down from them who was already holding back tears before she even sat down, although whether that was due to the occasion itself or her clearly too-tight and too-high shoes, Laura wasn’t sure.
‘Everyone’ definitely did not include Laura. She had met Sarah precisely three times before; none of these encounters did anything to change her impression that they would not get on. It wasn’t that Sarah was judgemental, like her mother; logically, Laura knew there was nothing to dislike about her, but there wasn’t much to like either. In that sense, she was much like her brother. Laura instantly felt cruel for thinking like this, but she told herself that she couldn’t help how she felt, about James, about Sarah, about anyone. Once the initial intrigue had worn off, and Laura had realised that nothing really lay behind the exterior, James’s every flaw began to rub her up the wrong way – she began to feel like a cliché for how she felt, or more accurately, didn’t feel, about him, and then like even more of a cliché for feeling like a cliché. Suddenly, the music (“Called it,” thought Laura, as ‘Marry You’ came over the slightly tinny sound system) started and Sarah and Frank walked in. Frank was wearing a slightly ill-fitting suit that he’d bought the year before for a co-worker’s funeral that his wife would not approve of.
An indeterminable amount of time passed and then Sarah and her now-husband were married. The wedding reception was as grey and unmemorable as the ceremony had been. No one got too drunk and embarrassed themselves, no one reorganised the seating plan, although Laura was sorely tempted to when she realised she’d be sitting next to Peggy, James’s mother – she suspected that Peggy, too, would face the same temptation. It was perfectly nice and ordinary and respectable, and Laura was bored out of her mind. The food was decent but nothing special, the music was drab and predictable and conversation mostly revolved around reminiscences of places the family had been and people she’d never met. Laura did wonder if they were deliberately excluding her – she knew James wouldn’t, but she wouldn’t put it past Peggy. Sarah just seemed too besotted with becoming Mrs Morag that she didn’t notice. Later Laura would realise that she was as much of a stranger to them as they were to her, and that it was Sarah and her husband’s (Harry? Henry? Even when sitting at the same table as him and having just been to his wedding, Laura could not remember his name) day – that day though, it seemed to her that she was unwanted, a hanger-on by dint of her relationship with James, a relationship she didn’t even want.
Eventually, people started to leave, saying their goodbyes to the happy couple and weepily promising to stay in touch. Laura and James left for the hotel room they had booked. They were only an hour or so’s drive away from the flat they shared in Edinburgh but had decided a hotel would be easier – the trains would be off by the time they were leaving and not driving meant they could both drink. Besides, they could ‘make a weekend of it’, as James put it, sounding so much like Laura’s parents (who rarely ventured outside Stirlingshire and referred to Stirling as ‘the Big City). When did every little thing become so adult, Laura asked James when they were talking through options a few weeks earlier. He pointed out that she was an accountant, notoriously the most boring job imaginable, and she almost felt bad for thinking of him (an architect, at a private firm in Edinburgh) as boring. Almost.
Much like her relationship with James, she had accidentally become an accountant. After graduating from Glasgow, she had done a number of part time jobs, working in customer service or retail for the most part, which she was simultaneously over-qualified for and terrible at. She’d been a waitress in a very hipster bar in the West End when she’d tripped over on the stairs, spilling the tray of cocktails all over herself and the man coming down the stairs who knocked her over. He didn’t seem to mind – “hey, free drinks”, he quipped, in a very posh just-outside-London accent, as he licked the Strawberry Daquiri from his sleeve – but she minded, the table the drinks were for certainly minded and her boss minded. The next day, jobless, she applied for an accountancy course, and now, here she was, in a hotel with a man she barely even liked, let alone loved and doing a job she could barely stand.
James, on the other hand, had always wanted to be an architect. Of course, by ‘always’, he really meant ‘since 1998, when we went to Glasgow and I saw the armadillo’. He’d turn it into a story, even though at 10 he didn’t know what an architect (or, Laura suspected, an armadillo) was or did. He’d had a Plan with a capital P, right down to what Highers he would need. When they’d met in Edinburgh, years later, he’d tried to woo Laura with this story, but she couldn’t imagine knowing what you wanted to be at 10. Her niece was 9 and insisted she wanted to be a ballet dancer, but only a couple of years earlier had declared to anyone who would listen, and to many who wouldn’t, that she was going to be a dragon. Laura felt that was better than architect, accountant and dancer combined, and was slightly disappointed when Ellie decided that she no longer wanted to steal gold and breathe fire. Perhaps she’d become an accidental accountant too – the thought of that made Laura a little sad.
James and Laura were back in their hotel room, him still in his suit from the wedding but looking less formal with his tie undone and shoes off, revealing his Hibernian socks. Being a Hibs fan was one of the most interesting thing about him, she thought, and it wasn’t even that interesting – it just wasn’t Celtic or Rangers. Laura wondered how many identical Hibs socks he owned, and how often he washed them. Even though they’d been living together for four months by now, yet another example of her wanting to avoid awkward situations at any cost, she still insisted that they did their own washing.
She was in her pyjamas already, or rather, the oversized tie-dye t-shirt she wore overnight, so old (she had bought it in her second year of university at a thrift store near Mono over in Glasgow) that you couldn’t tell what colours it was meant to be anymore. She used to wear it as a dress, with a belt round the waist to emphasise what she felt was her best asset, and she’d wear it everywhere. Clubbing, lectures, shopping, it was perfect for everything. Now it wasn’t even really good enough for bed, let alone to be seen by anyone who mattered. Not that James didn’t matter, exactly.
“Lau,” James said, in a voice she thought was supposed to sound vaguely seductive but just sounded bored. “Come to bed, Lau.” Quite how her tea stained t-shirt was in anyway an aphrodisiac she didn’t know, but Laura was increasingly realising that there was a lot about James that she just didn’t understand. When they’d first met, that had seemed exciting – how many deep and mysterious layers were there beneath that surface? Now, it irritated her and confirmed Laura’s suspicion that they just weren’t suited to each other. If this was anyone else’s relationship, or a plotline in a film, she’d be holding back her tongue from offering the ‘just dump him already’ advice. ‘Just dump him’ was her go-to advice when it came to any relationship. Being hers though, it all felt more complicated. Logically, she knew it wasn’t, and that she was in danger of sleepwalking into a life she had never wanted. She already had a job she didn’t want and a boyfriend she didn’t love. Before long, he would propose, and she would inevitably say yes, and then they would have children, and then, and then, and then…
“Lau, breathe, you’re having a panic attack! God, are you alright?”
James looked genuinely concerned and, for a moment, Laura felt a pang of affection for him. Not love, she knew the difference, but affection was better than nothing. She said she was just tired, kissed him on the cheek and turned away from him, as if she was going to sleep. She lay awake for a while, eyes closed but sensing his warm body, still clothed, next to her. The last thing she heard before she drifted off was his heavy, resigned sigh.
Laura woke up the next morning to the sound of James shuffling around the room. He was already dressed, in dark jeans and a non-descript shirt. He looked attractive, she supposed, in that generic white-man-in-his-early-thirties way, and she spent a while just watching him before he realised that she was awake.
“Lau, you’re awake! I would have woken you but you looked like you needed your lie in” he explained, looking guilty as though he were an alarm clock that had gone faulty. He kissed her cheek as she sat up in bed, wiping the sleep out of her eyes. Once she had got dressed, in a dress she’d picked up in a charity shop and a cardigan her friend had knitted, Laura and James went downstairs to the hotel restaurant for breakfast – they both had the full Scottish, eggs fried rather than scrambled and for the first time in months, Laura felt that perhaps their relationship was salvageable, was worth salvaging. The wedding hadn’t really been a disaster, and he was kind to her, and maybe that was enough. She ate the tomatoes that he didn’t, and he had her second slice of toast. Perhaps that was what relationships were about, she thought. Liking your eggs done the same way and finishing each other’s breakfasts.
They had a couple of hours before their train back to Edinburgh, and it was a rare day of good weather, so they picked up their bags, checked out of the hotel and went for a walk in the Scottish sun. Still full from breakfast, they picked up some ice cream anyway, and for a brief half an hour, everything felt perfect. Without the wedding hanging over them, Laura felt relaxed, knowing that she wouldn’t have to see Peggy until Christmas, and that Sarah and Harry/Henry/Hubert would be going on honeymoon, so they could enjoy their time without James’ family getting in the way.
It was only after Laura had been talking for about five minutes that she realised James hadn’t spoken in a while. Perhaps he was tired from the wedding? Or maybe from getting up early – he’d been awake when she went to sleep and when she woke up, and she hadn’t asked him how he’d slept.
“James, are you okay?” she asked, expecting him to reassure her and for them to get the train back to Edinburgh together, in happily unwedded bliss, at least until their next disagreement. He stopped walking, as though he had just remembered something very important, and gestured towards a nearby bench.
“I didn’t want to do it like this” he started to say, but Laura interrupted, “Do what? Are your parents ill? Oh god, are you ill?”
He laughed, but the hollow kind of laugh that says that a Michael Macintyre show would be more funny.
“I’m fine, Laura, it’s just…”
She knew things were about to get bad when he called her Laura. He always called her Lau, even when introducing her to his parents. No one, not even her own parents, called her Lau, but he always did. From him, it felt like a sign of affection, whereas Laura felt strangely formal, uncomfortable coming from his mouth.
They ended up talking for all of two minutes and sat on separate carriages on the train home. He went to his friend Dan’s house, while she, veering between wanting to hit something (preferably James himself) and wanting to cry herself to sleep packed up her belongings and went to stay with her parents in Stirlingshire. She had to be the one to leave, not just because he owned the flat and she was staying there rent-free, but because that was how it worked. He was the one who had done the deed, she was the one left heart-broken, so she had to leave.
Heartbroken? Barely 24 hours before she’d been wanting to break up with him. She’d spent most of the relationship wondering if it was worth it but now she was the one buying emergency tissues and putting her DVD collection in boxes. She was angry at herself, angry at him and angry at no one in particular. On the train to Stirling, Laura texted her friend Jess. “Drinks? James dumped me” and moments later, Jess texted back in exactly the way Laura had hoped she would. She knew Jess had never liked James; most of their conversations about him turned into Jess whining about how boring he was, and Laura got the definite impression that James knew her friends didn’t like him much, even if he was too polite to say something.
“Omg the bastard, Friday okay for you? xxx”
Friday came and after what felt like an even more interminable day at work than normal, Laura went to Jess’s flat in Leith. They’d change into their going-out clothes, an outfit Laura had spent longer planning than she had for Sarah’s wedding, do their hair and make-up and go back to Edinburgh for their night, plans for which had rapidly escalated from a couple of drinks down the bar to a pub crawl finishing in a club which they were both probably several years too old for. She hadn’t heard from James at all since the break-up, but then, she had deleted his number and blocked him on social media straight after texting Jess, so she wasn’t surprised particularly. They hadn’t agreed on no contact, they hadn’t agreed on anything really, but as Jess reminded her, it was healthiest for both of them. No contact, a clean break.
She’d been friends with Jess since their university days; they’d been in the same halls and on the same course, bonding over a mutual loathing of The Great Gatsby. Jess was originally from somewhere down south – Lancaster? Leicester? Laura couldn’t remember but she knew it began with an L – but had stayed in Scotland after graduation, first in Glasgow then in Leith. She was loud and confident, everything Laura wanted to be but wasn’t, and so made the perfect friend for a post break-up night on the town.
They were in their third bar of the night and beginning to realise that they weren’t 18 anymore. Jess spotted him first – even three cocktails down, she had the sense to realise that telling Laura her very-recently-ex was not only in the same bar, but was engaged in a very flirtatious moment with a tall, dark-haired waitress.
“Of all the gin joints…” she muttered under her breath.
“Of all the what?” Laura asked. Looking up from her martini, she saw what, or rather, who, Jess had noticed.
Laura had planned on bumping into James at some point, but in her imagination she wasn’t three (or was it four?) drinks down, there wouldn’t be so many people around, especially not Jess, and he definitely wouldn’t be flirting with someone else. She’d accidentally-on-purpose have bumped into him near his work, be ‘just walking past’ on her way home (although the train station was in the opposite direction and she knew he knew this). Cliched as ever, they would have sat on a bench by the Scott monument and had a heart to heart, departing as friends. He would give her a soft kiss on the cheek before she, elegant and sophisticated, ran to get her train. Laura had been through this situation in her head so many times that she somehow couldn’t believe it was happening differently.
“Maybe if we leave now he won’t have noticed us?” she said, pathetically, knowing that what she wanted was for James to see her and only her, not to go unnoticed in a crowd of people. If she were a different person – if she was Jess – she’d confidently go up to the bar, walk straight past him and ignore him. Or perhaps instead of ignoring him, she’d throw a drink in his face and then storm out. The more rational part of herself reminded her that he hadn’t really done anything wrong and that wasting gin was almost a criminal offence, so she settled for just staying where she was and continuing to drink.
It was about half an hour later, all thought of a pub crawl set aside for staying where they were, when she heard him.
“Laura?” What are you doing here?” he asked, sounding surprised to see her, confused almost.
“Same thing everyone else is, drinking”. She slurred her words slightly, ruining the effect of what she had imagined as a perfect comeback. James didn’t look impressed – in fact, he had the expression of someone who desperately wanted to get away, to get back to his friends, away from Laura and Jess and the whole awkward situation.
“I can see that,” he replied, causing Jess to chuckle and almost choke on her drink. “I meant what are you doing here, specifically? Are you following me?”
Now it was Laura’s turn to be unimpressed. She knew her reaction to their break up had been strange, some might even call it irrational, but she hadn’t turned into a stalker – besides, Jess had chosen the pub, not her. Jess had organised most of the night, and doubtless would have done so right down to Laura’s outfit if she’d been allowed to. Jess grabbed Laura’s arm and dragged her onto the cobbled street outside before she could say anything witty and cutting.
The night was still young, or so they would have argued at 19, but now, whether it was age, the drama of bumping into James or the growing realisation that even if they left now, they would only be able to get a few hours of sleep at best before being awoken by Jess’s very vocal cat demanding breakfast. They jumped in a taxi back to Leith, and that was that.
That really was that, this time. Laura didn’t bump into James again. She thought she saw him once, four or five years later, pushing a pram along the Royal Mile, but it could have been anyone. She smiled, and then just continued on her way, perfectly content and perfectly satisfied.