- Published: 21 May 2019
- ISBN: 9781784162221
- Imprint: Black Swan
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 544
- RRP: $19.99
Fergus was getting tetchy. The new girl should’ve been there at six. And now it was twenty past. A Saturday night at the height of the summer season was not a time to be short-staffed. He’d already roped poor Callum in to help. And obviously he’d rather be elsewhere. He looked over at him serving behind the bar and thought, as he often did, how good he looked for his age, definitely younger than his thirty-eight years. Fergus’s kid brother, Callum. Funny he still thought of him as the baby. Even though he was a towering six foot four. He watched him now, chatting easily to a couple of the locals. That was the thing about Callum. He was easy. With absolutely everyone. Whoever he was talking to – no matter who they were, their background, their age – he had this way of sounding interested. It’s what made him such a good teacher. And such a good dad. Fergus envied his brother’s enduring patience.
Callum was listening to old Stuey Jameson berating the latest goings-on in the news, putting the world to rights – Ach, how things’d be if he ran the show. It was part of the job, listening to the regulars – the old boys who staked their territory at the bar and refused to move, no matter how busy it got in the pub. Always sitting in the same place, on the same bar stools, drinking the same brand of bitter. Even in winter, when the place was sunk into sad hibernation and waves from the North Sea smashed relentlessly against the sand, hurling their beige foam high over the roofs of the seafront hotels; when the promenade was no longer peopled with ice-cream-holding holidaymakers – even then, in those dark, tradeless months, regulars like Stuey religiously came and sat at the bar, downing their pints in perfectly timed rhythm, to the tune of sparse, empty chat. Yes, Stuey and his like were the pub’s bread and butter out of season, and could never be taken for granted.
Fergus nodded at Callum and headed out to the beer garden. Where the hell was this barmaid? He knew it was a mistake taking her on. The girl – Kate something-or-other – had come to him last week when he was particularly busy. The daughter of a mate of a mate, looking for a holiday job and apparently a bit lively, but weren’t they all these days? Fancied herself as a bit of an actress. But didn’t they all these days? Fergus reckoned actresses were probably good with people, good at chatting to the likes of Wheezy Ron and Jackie Legg. And she’d had this smile. And before he knew it, there he was saying, ‘OK, come in on Saturday at six, let’s see how it goes.’ And looking at his watch, it was now six thirty-five. So it wasn’t going well at all.
He started clearing crisp-packet debris from one of the tables. A group of kids who’d made the mess whooped and cheered as Fergus deftly collected five pint glasses in each practised hand. One of the crowd, enthusiastic with drink, drained his whisky chaser and brought the tumbler down too hard, smashing it to pieces and eliciting more cheers and whoops.
‘Hey! You can cut that out RIGHT now, d’ye hear!’
Fergus took the glasses back to the bar. ‘Have a word with that lot, will you, Cal? They’re doin’ my nut in and it’s only half six.’ He handed him a dustpan and brush. ‘And where the hell is this girl?’
Heading outside to the rowdy crowd, Callum wondered again why Fergus had ever wanted a pub. He hated the hours, hated the customers and didn’t even like a drink! He started clearing up the broken glass. ‘Take it easy now, lads. My brother’s in a strop tonight and it’s me that’ll get it in the neck.’
‘Aye. Cheers, Cal.’
Callum’s gentle-giant demeanour was always a calming force. Friends joked he should have worked for the UN. His quiet confidence and lovely-ugly-rugby-player soul made those around him feel safe. He never lost his temper and yet no one would ever want to get on the wrong side of him. His rugby days long gone, Callum’s body still bore the war wounds from years of playing on weather-beaten pitches, taking hit after hit in the scrum, battered by thousands of tackles, bashed, cut, bruised and scarred. He’d never been an oil painting in the traditional sense, but what made him so attractive was the fact that he didn’t know he was, his features now more rugged than the Scottish coastline he’d grown up on. And as Denise at the club often liked to say, no matter how old he got, Callum MacGregor would never lose his sexy-as-fuck factor.
‘Look boys – it’s magic!’ A voice came from behind them. An alien Welsh accent amidst the cacophony of Scottish. ‘Daddy’s got a pan and brush in his hands and he’s actually USING it!’
Callum beamed as he turned to see Belinda, his heavily pregnant, tenaciously blooming thirty-six-year-old wife, holding the hands of his two little sons, Ben and Cory. ‘Ey, watch it, you!’
‘Daddy, we’re goin’ the beach!’
Callum leant down and tickled Ben, making him squeal with delight. ‘Wish I was!’ He kissed Belinda softly on the cheek. ‘You OK?’
‘Oh y’know, so-so. Car’s out the front.’ She handed him the keys. ‘You sure you’re alright walking back?’
Belinda rubbed her tummy. ‘Yeah – the exercise’ll do me good. Might jog this one into getting a move on. Don’t reckon I can take another four weeks of this.’
‘Good curry – that’s what you need.’
‘No more kids! That’s what I need, Callum MacGregor. I’m never letting you near me ever again!’
Callum nuzzled discreetly into her neck, whispering, ‘And we all know that’s not gonna happen.’
Belinda caught her breath. He could still make her tingle even now, ten years down the road and on baby number three. ‘Behave,’ she whispered back, blushing. And scooping up Cory, who clutched his bucket and spade, she headed out, calling over her shoulder, ‘What time you back? Twelveish?’
‘Yeah, won’t be any later.’
He watched her go. Ten years older now than when they’d first met. Ten years wiser – if Belinda could actually be any wiser – and ten years more gorgeous, a child in each hand and another about to arrive. Yes, he looked at his wife and thought how very, very lucky he was.
If he could have replayed his life like a VHS tape, he’d have made it freeze-frame, put it on pause, and asked to pick up again from there. From that life-changing moment when he watched his beloved Belinda walk away and the whirlwind that was Kate Andrews come hurtling into his safe little world.
She was eating candy-floss.
She was twenty-two.
She was breathtakingly beautiful.
The lads round the table were delighted. ‘Oi! Give us a bite!’
‘Sorry – I never share anything. Don’t know what I might catch!’
She winked at them, then headed indoors, not even noticing Callum, who still stood, pan and brush in hand.
Inside, the bar was getting busier. ‘Sorry I’m late. I went to the fair!’ Kate looked around for a bin and threw away her candyfloss stick. The annoyance on Fergus’s face was masked by the steam that poured out of the glass-washer. He’d like to sack her before she’d even started, but he desperately needed a barmaid. He knew Kate knew this.
‘Right. I’m not impressed. And if you’re this late again, you can forget the job. Now get these glasses stacked and start serving. It’ll be eight deep in here in an hour.’
Callum went behind the bar and grabbed one of the many pint glasses being thrust his way from the other side.
‘The Seventy Shilling needs changing . . .’
‘I’ll do it,’ Callum offered.
‘No, you’re alright, just do me a pint for Alec, will you?’ And Fergus was off to the cellar.
‘OK, who’s next?’ Kate beamed at the sea of customers, seemingly unbothered by Fergus’s ticking-off. A chorus of thirsty voices each claiming their turn.
‘Is he always that miserable?’ she asked Callum as she began serving. It was the first time she’d spoken to him and all Callum could think about was the fact that her bare arm was touching his as they pulled their pints of lager in unison.
In defence of his brother, he tried to sound pissed off. ‘You were forty minutes late.’
‘Ha! You sound like a teacher!’ Kate laughed. ‘That’s because I am one.’
‘You’re kidding!’ Kate stopped, pint in hand.
‘No. This is just . . . well, I help Fergus out when it’s busy.’
She turned, noticing him for the first time. ‘Where d’you teach?’
‘St Mary’s down the road – top juniors.’
‘Ah, we used to play them in netball.’
‘Which school did you go to then?’
‘Other side of town. North Park on the Queensferry Road.’ Her smile was mesmerizing. ‘I’m Kate, by the way.’
She held his gaze.
Five hours later, she was astride him, her lacy knickers discarded on the sandy ground beneath their feet and her little denim skirt confidently pulled up. The wooden slats of the shelter’s bench groaned along with every thrust, joining in. She sat facing him, taking all of him in, relentlessly delighted to feel him inside her, as if discovering sex for the first time. But she was too well versed in what she was doing for this to be the first time. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath and held his face, disbelievingly – ‘Jesus!’ His smile spread slowly, then, without warning, he picked her up in one deft movement and pushed her against the wall. She whispered ‘Yes’ and he carried on fucking her. ‘God, you’re good.’
What are you doing? The question flashed through his mind but he swiftly ignored it.
They came together. Stood there indecorously, his jeans around his ankles, her legs around his waist and the North Sea pounding. Suddenly, over the yelling of the waves, they heard singing: a drunken voice, getting closer. ‘I’m ne’er ginna dance agin, Guilty feelin’ got nae rhythm.’
‘Shit!’ Kate giggled. Callum covered her mouth with his hand. Which turned her on even more.
She didn’t. Nor did Callum. She buried her head in his neck as the well-oiled George Michael tribute act turned the corner at the other end of the shelter, leant up against the wall, unleashed his tackle and had an almighty pish. It seemed to go on forever, accompanied by bursts of ‘Shoulda known better than to cheat a friend . . .’
Kate, still amused, started biting Callum’s palm. Every second that passed, they waited for the man to look up and see them, but he was oblivious. When he eventually finished, he shook himself down, tucked himself in and stumbled away.
Kate whispered, ‘D’you think he—’
‘Not a thing.’
But from a little way off came a shout. ‘G’nigh, pal. Nice arse, by the way.’
And Kate collapsed in giggles.
It was nearly one a.m. when he drove her into the city centre, tatty bits of Body Shop make-up messy in her lap. The vanity mirror was down and she was scooping her hair up into a scrunchy. She had big rich glossy brown curls, masses of them. He wanted to put his hands through them again, bury his face in them and inhale.
She saw him looking. ‘Oi, keep your eyes on the road.’
He smiled and did what he was told.
Shaking a blue mascara wand into action, she began topping up her lashes, mouth open in concentration.
‘How old are your kids?’
‘Who says I got kids?’
‘You gonna tell me you haven’t?’
He smiled. ‘Three and five. And there’s another one on the way.’
‘Christ, you been busy. No wonder you need the extra cash.’ She was onto lipliner now. Callum stole a glance as she meticulously lined her fleshy lips with confident expertise. She knew he was watching again. ‘I can do this with my eyes closed, y’know. It’s my party trick.’
‘Bet you couldn’t do someone else’s.’
She smiled. ‘Just here’s fine. I’ll walk the rest.’ And she swept up her make-up and shoved it into her little beaded bag as Callum stopped the car.
‘You sure you don’t want me to take you home?’
‘It’s a Saturday night in Edinburgh, man! Remember those? Nightclubs? Curry houses? Hangovers the next day? You’re not that old.’
‘Thirty-nine next month!’
She smirked at him and got out of the car. ‘Thanks for the lift!’
He watched as she walked away. And then, as if remembering something, she turned on her heel and came back to his side of the car. He wound down the window and she leant inside to kiss him.
Jesus, those lips, he thought.
She looked him straight in the eye. ‘You. Are going. To break my heart, Callum MacGregor.’ And she was off again, banging the roof of the car as she left. ‘Toodle-pip!’ This time she didn’t turn around.
He tried to take in what had just happened. Was it some kind of set-up, an elaborate joke played by one of the boys at the club? No. This was no joke.
And then it came.
He took a deep breath. Where would he say he’d been tonight? For the briefest of moments, he thought about telling her. What? Fuck, no. How could he even think that was a good idea?
Went up the club, had a bit of a lock-in.
Gary would cover for him. He owed him more than one favour on that front – Callum was always covering for Gary. Christ, is that what he’d become now? A rugby-club-shagger bore?
In the distance he saw Kate join a group of friends, laughing. One of them picked her up and swung her round. Callum turned the key in the ignition and his car pulled away. He was headed home. Ready to start lying.
‘I fell for him so hard. It was like riding a bicycle really fast down a very steep hill and realizing my brakes weren’t working.’ Kate Andrews – now thirty-nine, tearful, smartly dressed and more stunning with age – was talking to a therapist, hands crossed neatly in her lap.
‘And what about him? What d’you think he was feeling at the time?’ The therapist was softly spoken, kind.
Kate took a deep breath. ‘Well, to be honest, most of the time I think he was feeling . . .’ she hesitated and the therapist nodded, willing her to speak, ‘. . . my arse.’ And she burst out laughing, covering her face in her hands.
The director and the TV crew were used to this from Kate. The actor playing the therapist looked bemused. The camera guys shared a smile.
‘Sorry, I’m so sorry, I just couldn’t resist. It’s this script! The lines are just so – y’know, crap sometimes . . .’
‘Yes, thanks, really helpful that.’ The director wasn’t impressed. They were already running over time.
Kate rolled her eyes. Christ, what was wrong with people? It was only a bit of a laugh. ‘For God’s sake, I said I was sorry!’
‘OK everyone, we’ll pick this up again on Friday. Hopefully by then Ms Andrews will have pulled herself together. That’s a wrap.’ Like a scolded child, Kate headed off to her trailer, shouting goodnight to various crew members. Betsy, her make-up artist, called out to her, ‘You wanna get your slap off, sweetheart?’
‘No, I’ll do it at home.’
‘Your loss,’ Betsy joked. ‘I’d’ve done you a lovely head massage!’
‘Next time, babe! Love you!’
And she climbed up the metal steps of the Winnebago, her smile dropping as she shut the door behind her. She started changing out of her character’s clothes into her Armani jeans.
The wall lights were on and the electric fire. Something she held dear about being in her trailer when it was dark and cold outside. Her own little sanctuary. She loved night shoots when there were hours of hanging around. She’d climb into her little trailer bed and pretend she was eight again, all cosied up and safe. She pulled on her cashmere V-neck and caught her reflection staring back from the mirror on the laminated wall. She looked her age today. The dark circles were pushing their way through the matt concealer under her eyes. She needed another vitamin B shot from that doctor in Harley Street. Couldn’t afford to get run down with another eight weeks’ filming to do. And she really must give up smoking. She picked up her packet of Marlboro Lights, lit one and inhaled defiantly at the sign by the fridge – Strictly no smoking inside this trailer. They all knew she smoked in there, but no one dared say a word.
A timid knock on the trailer door.
‘Don’t come in!’
‘Sorry, Kate, just to say your car’s ready when you are.’ It was Becky, one of the runners, a sweet and lovely girl whose kindness never ceased to amaze.
‘OK, thanks, Becs. Be there now.’
Kate took four more rapid puffs on her cigarette, squeezing out every last drop of nicotine, before running the stub under the tap and throwing it in the bin.
She shut her eyes for a few seconds and sighed. The blackness was heading her way. That godawful, disempowering gloom that crept up from time to time and engulfed her. She could feel it, deep in the pit of her stomach – an anxiety, a fear of the unknown, an irrational sense of impending sorrow. She had to banish it before it sank its claws into her again.
She looked at her reflection, determined, gritted her teeth and said, ‘Come on. Get. A. Grip.’ Then she painted on the well-known Kate Andrews smile and opened the trailer door.
Dougie, her driver, was waiting by his black Mercedes, drinking coffee from his ubiquitous Thermos mug. He shouted across to her, ‘Got anything you want carrying, sweetcheeks?’
‘Only my sorry ass!’
‘Can be arranged.’
‘Oh you old smoothie, Doug.’
And Dougie laughed, slightly too loudly. Sometimes the film-set banter was exhausting. Always having to keep up this pretence of ‘all mates together’, having to be constantly upbeat, constantly cracking jokes, constantly being a ‘really good sport’. She imagined Dougie telling his wife, or the other drivers, She’s a little diamond, that Kate Andrews. Won’t hear a word said against her. Down-to-earth, heart of gold, wicked sense of humour . . . Kate knew how important it was to stay in Dougie’s good books. She never knew when she’d need to call in a favour.
Kate dug deep and went into overtly jolly mode. ‘Come along then, Douglas! Take me home and don’t spare the horses!’
Forty minutes later, Kate was fast asleep in the back of the car. She always slept on her way home. Dougie knew the routine: ten minutes before arriving at her house, he would wake her so she could have a sneaky ciggie out the window.
‘Kate . . .’ he whispered. He didn’t want to alarm her. ‘Not far now.’
She stretched and yawned, waiting for Dougie to say the inevitable, ‘Careful – you’ll start catching flies you stay like that too long!’
‘What time is it?’
‘Quarter past, treacle.’
She reached into her bag for her fags, took one out and lit it, rapidly winding down the window to blow out the smoke and relishing the comforting blast of cool air on her face. The Chiswick traffic was slow. She adored this time of evening, passing houses when it was dark: people with their curtains open and their lights on unwittingly presenting private shows for passers-by who peeked anonymously into their lives.
‘I’m sorry for smoking in your car, Doug, it’s really selfish of me.’
He was thrown by her uncharacteristic humility. ‘That’s alright, darlin’. What the eye don’t see, eh?’
The traffic drew to a halt again. Kate looked inside the front room of a ground-floor flat. A woman sat on her own, an empty dinner plate in front of her, flicking channels on her remote. She gave up, threw the remote across the room and buried her head in her hands. In the house next door a couple were rowing – the woman raised her arms, gesturing in defiance, the man just kept shaking his head. He appeared to be trying to speak, but she was talking over him. The car moved slowly on. Three houses down, two women were laughing at something one of them was reading from a letter, wiping their eyes with joy. The joy turned to a hug. The hug turned to a kiss.
‘Are you happy, Doug?’
‘Oh y’know me, Miss! Can’t complain!’
Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, could be worse – all the trite expressions people relentlessly churn out, making light of all that pain, giving away not the slightest hint that they’re feeling demolished inside. Unless of course they weren’t. Maybe she was alone in knowing this hollowness of spirit, this bankruptcy of the soul that caught her out when she least expected it.
What must it be like to be normal, she wondered? The world’s idea of normal anyway. She thought about Dougie’s wife. Dougie’s wife would be normal. Hairdresser’s on a Tuesday, Aerobics on a Wednesday, girls’ night on a Thursday (Dougie’s wife would call them ‘girls’, even though their average age was sixty-two), curry night with Doug on a Friday, Unless he’s workin’ – these television shows, he’s out all hours ferryin’ the stars back an’ forth, bless him. Then Dougie’s wife’d have the grandchildren on a Saturday or go shopping with her daughter-in-law, and do a nice roast on the Sunday. Every Sunday. Dougie’s wife probably had a little part-time job in a gift shop or a cafe and did her Christmas shopping by October the first every year. Kate longed to be normal. To never have to overthink or listen to the running commentary whirring in her head, telling her she was never good enough or real enough, calling her useless and ugly and fat.
‘What plans you got for your day off then?’ Dougie interrupted her thoughts.
‘Sod all, thank God.’ She reached into her bag for her diary. ‘Long lie-in, nice brunch at Carlo’s, maybe a little massage in the . . . Oh fuck.’ She’d found tomorrow’s date and there it was, staring back at her. She grabbed her mobile from her bag, scrolling through her contacts for her agent’s number.
‘You been booked?’ said Doug.
‘Looks like it.’ The call had connected. ‘Cynthia, it’s me. Sorry to ring out of hours but I’ve got no details for this thing tomorrow – it just says “school visit”.’
‘Yes, love, your old school.’
‘You’re kidding me?’
‘’Fraid not. You’re on the seven ten from Euston. They booked you a good six months ago and they’re very excited about it.’
‘How come I don’t remember agreeing to this? Edinburgh!! For fuck’s sake, Cynth!’
Cynthia Kane had been Kate’s agent for over fifteen years. She was used to Kate’s volatile temperament and her habit of not listening to information then claiming later not to have been told. Cynthia never took offence. ‘You want me to cancel?’
Kate sighed. Yes, she did. But in all conscience she knew it’d be too harsh. ‘No, it’s fine. Sorry. Could’ve just done with a day off, that’s all.’
Cynthia hung up, promising to have a word with the producer to see if they could find a few days’ grace in the filming schedule so that Kate could get some R & R.
‘Thanks, Cynthia.’ Kate sighed and looked out of the window. She knew what Dougie would say next and predictably he did. ‘No peace for the wicked, eh?’
‘Oh, can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, could be worse . . .’ Dougie was oblivious to her sarcasm and she took a deep draw on her fag before throwing it out the window, just as they pulled into her road.
The shoes were a big mistake. Her toes had gone numb and every time a stiletto heel crunched on to the unforgiving surface of the pavement, it set her teeth on edge.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
One hundred and thirty-five metres above London, with one of the most spectacular city views in the world as your backdrop, who could say no?
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.
Madison Locke’s heart lifted like the birdsong that woke her that morning – joyous, clamouring, excited.