A Valentine’s Tale

As I did in January, I thought I’d carry on with posting of my short story efforts from last year. And seeing as this week sees that biggest of con’s, Valentines Day, what better way to mark the occasion than letting you read the story I was writing this time last year. I hope you enjoy!

 

I’m not usually one to get carried away about Valentine’s Day, it’s all a big con if you ask me. The enormous pressure exerted by all the big businesses, telling the girls that their man doesn’t give a flying fuck about her if he doesn’t buy her jewellery or chocolates or a fucking car or something daft. For me though, it hasn’t been a problem for a good five years. Not since Florence left me. That’s my ex-wife. Before you ask, I was pretty upset about it – at the time. But, I’m over it now. Well, I have to be, really. For Bobby’s sake. Bobby is my son, he’s fourteen now, but being nine when it all went tits up was hard for him. For a few days after Flo left – I call her Flo now because it fits in with the withered old hag she really is – he would come home from school in tears because of one thing or another. I’d try and talk to him about it, but I don’t think he quite got it. All he could see was that his mum was gone and his dad was trying to keep the house going. The weeks went by, and slowly Bobby started to fight back the tears and muddle through. I tried to be pleasant to her when she picked him up and dropped him off, and I think she tried too, for Bobby’s sake. But it started going a bit wrong when she sent her new man to pick him up. So much for ‘there’s no one else involved’ I thought. Then, to top it all off, Bobby comes back from her house one weekend and says she’s pregnant. I forgot myself for a moment and said the ‘F word’ out loud in front of Bobby. 

That was the moment I decided to stay out of the game and concentrate on bringing Bobby up properly. I had help from my mum and dad, and my brother and his wife. Mrs Smith next door was a real diamond too. It was always bound to happen, though, with my advancing years. Eventually, I would want to find someone else to share my life with, before I ended up dying alone. The question was, where would a greying forty year old man with bad eyesight find the woman of his dreams, a second time round? Mum suggested an ad in the paper – she’s so old fashioned, dad thought the internet was the way to go – he’s trying to keep up with modern times, bless him. My brother, Tom reckoned I should just hang around the clubs on a Friday night and take home a drunken tart half my age. Surprisingly, it was Bobby who had the best idea of the lot when I picked him up from school one Friday afternoon. I’d been to see a potential client and happened to be coming past the school as Bobby and his mates were coming out. I was reluctant to stop, because I remembered being fourteen, and wanting to seem hard and grown up to my mates, not to mention cool in front of the ladies, but I reckoned that as it was pissing down with rain, he might appreciate a lift home. So I slowed down and tooted the horn of my probably uncool Ford Focus as I approached his position by the gates. He looked up and peeked from under his hood, and seemed to exchange brief words with his mates before he jogged over and opened the car door. He thanked me as he got in, dripping on the passenger seat, and immediately retuned the radio from Radio 2 to some bloody racket on Kerrang! I’ll let him off, I thought to myself, as we made our way through the throng of cars containing similarly minded parents coming to the rescue of their children. We exchanged the usual father-son chitchat – football, television, school, what was for tea, and then, out of nowhere, Bobby piped up. “Do you get lonely, dad?” he said. I took my eyes off the road to stare at him as his question sunk in, only to be immediately interrupted by a sharply breaking car in front. “What do you mean Bobby?” I asked him casually. “You know, you’ve not had a girlfriend since mum, have you,” he said quite matter-of-factly. I was taken aback to say the least, but I tried to keep some sort of composure. “No, not really, son. You’ve kept me busy enough.” I smiled, and looked at him in the corner of my eye. He smiled too, then, as he fiddled with the strap on his rucksack, I saw a sense of almost pity, almost sadness before he spoke again. “Dad, you really need a girlfriend. I’m the only one with a single dad, it’s embarrassing. They keep saying you’re probably gay, or something.” I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing, accidentally spraying the inside of the windscreen with spittle. “Look son,” I said as I wiped the spit off the windscreen with my finger, “you don’t need to worry. Your dad ain’t gay. He just doesn’t know where to look for a girlfriend.” I hoped this would put his mind at rest and help him fend off the playground dimwits who were obviously giving him some stick about his old man. And that was when he had his lightbulb moment. “There are plenty of single mothers picking up kids at school. Some of them are milfs, too,” he added. I was hit with two realisations here. Firstly, my son knew what a milf was, and clearly I needed to have ‘the talk’ sometime soon. Secondly, he was on to something. The rest of the car journey home was taken up by Bobby listing all his mates with single mothers, but he saved the best until last. As I pulled onto our driveway and killed the engine, he put his hand on my arm and then said “but best of all, Jimbo’s mum asked me how you were when I went round last week. And I know she wears hold-up tights, cos I’ve seen them in her washing basket.” I looked at Bobby with renewed appreciation. “Well, you’ll have to point her out next time, won’t you?” As if I wasn’t already stunned by my son’s knowledge of life, he then managed to crank it up further. “That won’t be difficult, dad,” he grinned, “she’s dropping Jimbo round tomorrow so we can go to the footy.” I gave him a wry smile and told him to get his arse in gear and get in the house. 

We had a good dinner, a Chinese takeaway consisting of Sweet and Sour Chicken, Beef Chow Mein, and Egg Fried Rice, the obligatory Prawn Crackers, accompanied by beer for me and coke for Bobby. I do normally cook, but this night I simply couldn’t be arsed. We messed about on Bobby’s games console for most of the evening, he consistently thrashed me at football, shooting, and racing, but he’s quite a bad loser so I didn’t really try as hard as I normally would have done. I told him this, and he just laughed “yeah, alright, dad”. Cheeky so-and-so. I made sure he went to bed at a decent time, because even teenagers need some sort of order, and as he was going out to the football tomorrow, he’d need to be up and out before lunch time. For a change. But I remember what it was like to be a teenager, just about. The world seems against you, your parents don’t understand you, and you suddenly need lots of sleep despite being a lazy bastard half the time.  Once Bobby had skulked off at 10, I settled in front of the telly and caught up on some Top Gear from last week and finished off another beer. I got bored around midnight and went up to bed myself, reading a few pages of my book, before falling asleep mid-page. At some point I must have woken up enough to put the book down and turn my bed-side lamp off because when I woke up the next morning, the birds were chirping away and the early February sun was trying to poke through my curtains. I lifted my head from the pillow and heard shuffling feet outside my bedroom door. The door began to edge open and I closed my eyes trying to shut out the possibility that someone was coming in to bludgeon me to death as I lay cowering in my Bootleg Beatles t-shirt and boxer shorts. Thankfully, Bobby poked his head round the door and gave me a mischievous grin. His head was followed by the rest of him, and the tray he was carrying, laden with a mug and a plate of toast. I sat up in bed and made myself comfortable so Bobby could put the tray down. I took the mug and took a drink, smiling as I discovered that he made quite a good cup of coffee. He handed me the plate of peanut buttered toast and looked at me. “You need to start the day off properly dad, cos Jimbo’s mum is coming remember?” I must have looked confused or something because there was a look in his eyes that almost bordered on anguish. “Jimbo’s mum. She’s single, and is always asking about you when I’m round there. She could be the one, dad.” I took another sip of my coffee, ran my fingers through my short greying hair and smiled lopsidedly. My fourteen year old son was now taking it upon himself to match me up with his best mate’s mum. A woman I’d never met face to face, but somehow had my well-being close to her heart almost. As I took a bite of toast, and felt the peanut butter stick to the roof of my mouth, I looked Bobby dead in the eye and asked him “just what have you been telling Jimbo’s mum about me?” Bobby looked towards the window, but as the curtains were still closed, there was nothing he could pretend to be looking at, so he turned back to me. “Nothing special, really. Just that you’re single, got a good job, and it’s been ages since you had a girlfriend.” I was dumb struck. “And you’re pretty cool for a forty year old”. I laughed out loud at this admission coming from my son, considering a lot of the time he was moaning at me for being so uncool. 

As the morning wore on, and Bobby continued to fuss, I started to get a feeling in my stomach that I hadn’t had for quite some time. I puzzled over it as I fried the bacon and eggs for our traditional Saturday lunch-time Bacon and Egg sandwiches, and while we ate in front of the telly watching Football Focus. It was while I was washing up the greasy pan that it finally hit me – I was actually nervous. A grown man of forty with a nervy knot in his stomach over meeting a woman. And I knew nothing about her, other than what Bobby had fed me. Eventually, as Bobby and I sat back in front of the telly, we heard the sound of a car drawing up outside. The squeak of the brakes was dying down when I happened to look at myself in the mirror. The white shirt Bobby had suggested I put on had a lovely red ketchup blob on the left side. I ducked into the kitchen and tried to do something with it, but failed miserably. I heard Bobby tapping on the lounge window, and made a snap decision. I rushed out into the hallway and up the stairs, shouting at Bobby to open the door as I took the stairs two at a time. I rifled through my wardrobe for something sufficiently ‘cool’, and I heard the front door open, and the muffled voices of Bobby and his mate. Having failed to find anything suitable, I opened one of my drawers and pulled out a t-shirt, pulling it on as I opened the bedroom door and went back downstairs. The lounge door was ajar, and taking a breath, I pushed it open and went in. 

Bobby and his mate Jimbo were sat on the sofa staring at the telly as Beyonce gyrated around the place on the screen. On the chair in the window was sat a remarkably pretty woman. I’ve never been great at describing people, but I’ll have a go: her hair was the colour of a good quality filter coffee and it fell just shy of her shoulders with a grown out fringe held back with a gleaming silver hair clip. Her skin was golden, not fake tan golden either, I would guess maybe some Mediterranean heritage in there. Her eyes were an impossible shade of blue, and they were enriched by a pair of trendy looking glasses with a thin silver frame perched on a straight and well-proportioned nose. Her mouth was wide and her lips were full, the sort built for kissing endlessly. I smiled and introduced myself, because neither Bobby or Jimbo were going to, clearly. “Nice to meet you too,” she said. “I’m Natalie.” I shook her hand politely and resumed my survey of Natalie’s presence. She was wearing a waist length black cotton jacket over a black polo neck top, and one of those chunky costume necklaces that seems to be popular at the moment. I tried not to dwell too long on her chest region, not on the first meeting, so I skipped down to the grey pleated skirt and thick black tights and the black leather ankle boots. Well, I assume they were tights. Considering what Bobby had said the day before, it was entirely conceivable that they may have been hold-up stockings. I offered Natalie a drink, but she declined on account that she was going into town to meet her sister for one. “Maybe next time,” she added. She called over to her son, Jimbo, to say goodbye. He barely looked up and grunted in her direction. Our eyes met in a mutual ‘teenagers: who’d have them’ sort of look, and out of nowhere, my mouth was moving before my brain could stop it, I’d asked her if she fancied ‘catching a movie’ on Wednesday night. Time seemed to stand still, and it was like I was seventeen again, asking out my first girlfriend Emma McIntosh. She’d said yes, and that led to three years together, but now, it was completely different. The silence that momentarily existed between Natalie and me was deafening, only pierced by the inane mumbling of some Yank rapper. After about six years, she nodded her head and smiled in acceptance. 

I saw her out to the front door, and we made arrangements for Wednesday. The advantage of Orange Wednesday meant it wasn’t going to cost me as much as it usually would, not that I’m a tight arse or anything. Bobby and Jimbo eventually turned the telly off and went out to the football, leaving me on my own to contemplate my achievement. It was at half past four, when I got a text from Bobby that I had what could be called ‘a moment’. All it said was ‘you did know Wed was Valentine’s dad?! Lol’.  Well, I can tell you I wasn’t ‘lol-ing’ when I read that the first time, or the fifth time. By the eighth time, I managed to see the funny side. And, anyway, either Natalie didn’t know herself, or she did and had still said yes. 

So, the weekend went in a flash, like it usually does. Monday was a bitch thanks to a client that couldn’t make up their bloody mind whether they wanted a wet room en-suite or not. I didn’t want the job to be honest, and had tried to price myself out of it, but I’d been recommended for the job, and money wasn’t an issue, so they still accepted my price. It was alright really, I guess – it was going to pay for me and Bobby to have a decent holiday in the summer. Tuesday was better, purely because of the cheques I received for services rendered. And so to Wednesday – Valentine’s Day itself. The joys of being self-employed and working from home meant I could take my time after seeing Bobby off to school. I revised a couple of drawings in the morning, made myself a beef and mustard sandwich for lunch, and cracked on again in the afternoon, even spending half an hour on the phone to the local Planning Department trying to sort out the height of a sodding roof. When Bobby got home from school, it signalled that the time was approaching. Again, I got that knotting feeling in my gut, but at least I knew why, so I managed to calm myself down by making Bobby’s tea, having a shower, washing my hair, and having a shave. As I was taking Bobby to Natalie’s so her sister could supervise Jimbo and Bobby doing their homework, I made sure we both had everything we needed and we headed out. I had no idea where I was going, so Bobby was directing me, and apart from one moment when he sent me the wrong way down a one-way street, we made the ten minute trip in one piece. We pulled up outside a fairly nice big house, bought with the proceeds of a handy divorce settlement according to Bobby. I had one more check in the rear view mirror before getting out, and Bobby gave me the once over too. “I wish you would tuck your shirt in dad, you’re not twenty any more,” he moaned. I patted my belly and smiled at him. “I’ve got to cover up my old man’s gut somehow, haven’t I?” He rolled his eyes and stalked up the driveway, past the brand new BMW, and only slightly older Kia Sportage and up to the front porch. I followed him, accidentally scraping the sole of my shoes on the flagstones of the drive. By the time I got to the door, Bobby had gone inside and the door was being held open by a woman looking remarkably like Natalie. I was about to greet her when I noticed he hair was a different colour, and she wasn’t wearing glasses. “Natalie?” I asked hopefully? The woman laughed a laugh I hadn’t heard since I watched Barbara Windsor in the Carry On films. “Nah, Natalie’s upstairs getting dolled up. Come on in and take a seat. I’m guessing you’re Tom.” I nodded in confirmation. “I suppose you must be the sister then.” The giggle again, then “you got it, mister. Martha.” She offered her hand which I shook gently, and followed her gesture into the rather spacious living room. There was no sign of Bobby and Jimbo to help me out, so I sat down on the huge leather three seater sofa and kept telling myself to stay cool, under my breath, of course. 

After about five minutes, which felt more like one hundred and five, I heard the clunk clunk of shoes on the wooden floor, and I stood up a little too quickly so that when Natalie entered the room, she was faced with me wobbling a little on my feet and looking somewhat disorientated. Eventually the light-headedness passed and I regained my balance enough to take in Natalie as she stood before me. Her hair was the same coffee colour as before, she was wearing the same glasses too. In view of the bitter wind outside, she had wisely plumped for a chocolate brown polo neck top, a denim skirt that just about touched the top of her knees, and funky black diamond pattern tights which disappeared into brown leather boots with a bit of a heel. She must have been giving me the once over at the same time, because we both stood there in silence, before I remembered my manners and whipped out the rose I’d stashed in the inside pocket of my black jacket. I handed it to her with a smile, and she took it from me, possibly with a hint of hesitation. Bobby had tried to persuade me that it would be embarrassing, and I almost caved in, but the old-fashioned charmer inside me held firm. As Natalie admired the rose, I started to wonder if I was being a little too forward for a ‘casual cinema evening’, but the smile and look she gave me seconds later reassured me that there was still a place in the world for us old-fashioned romantic types. I glanced quickly at my watch and gestured towards the door. “Shall we?” I said. Natalie smiled her agreement and we went out into the hall. “See you later James,” she called up the stairs. I followed with “You behave yourself Bobby”. Martha came from out of the kitchen and down the hallway towards us. She gave her sister a peck on the cheek, and smiled at me. We went through the front door, Martha closing it behind us, into the cold February night. The sky was clear and the stars were sparkling away in the blackness. Natalie was trying to put on her coat, but I could see she was struggling. “Need a hand?” I offered. She gave me a helpless look over her shoulder, so I took the coat from her and held it out. She slid one arm in, then the other, and as I lifted it onto her shoulders, I got a whiff of perfume that almost made me weak at the knees. We continued down the driveway to my car. I pressed the button on the keyfob to unlock the doors, and scuttled round to open the passenger door for Natalie. She brushed past me and slid down into the seat, and after checking there was nothing to get trapped in the door, I gently closed the door. Too gently, because it just clicked, rather than the usual clunk. I was already on my way back round the front of the car, so Natalie opened the door again and shut it with a resounding thud. I got in myself, and after arranging myself, turned the key in the ignition and we were off. 

I got to the cinema and parked up as close to the building as I could, considering it was fairly busy. As Natalie and I walked, we chatted about the joys of bringing up a teenage boy as a single parent, a little bit more about our exes and why we had preferred to remain single for so long. As we stood in the foyer and assessed the films on offer, I feared that we could end up going for a slushy rom-com, but out of the blue, Natalie pointed towards the latest Bruce Willis action-fest. I looked at her, pleasantly surprised, and double checked with her. “I just love Bruce,” she grinned. I made a mental note to buy some white vests, just in case. I went to buy the tickets while she stood in the queue for the sweets and stuff, when I caught up with her, she was waiting for me, with a big cup of coke and two straws, and an even bigger bucket of popcorn. I laughed, and took a handful of popcorn off the top. I wasn’t prepared for the look of sheer venom she flashed me. I stopped mid chew, and waited for our evening to come to an abrupt end. As I started to panic, the stony expression on Natalie’s face cracked and she burst out laughing herself. “I had you then,” she crowed. I was overcome with relief and could feel the redness in my face increase ten-fold. I held out my arm for her to hook round hers and we walked together to the stand where the spotty-faced cinema employee tore off the stubs and guided us to the screen we wanted. The auditorium was already in darkness and the endless advertisements were already underway, so we picked a row and squeezed past a young-ish couple and took our seats almost dead centre in the last few rows at the back. I helped Natalie out of her coat, again getting a nose full of her perfume, and took off my own jacket before sitting down. Natalie set the drink down on the arm rest between us, and hogged the popcorn bucket all to herself. When the advert came on that asks you to turn your mobile phone off, I consciously did so, and noticed that all around me, the glow from multiple mobile screens was giving off an eerie glow. I tutted and turned to Natalie to grumble, only to find she was doing the same thing! I admonished her gently, and she huffed slightly, before laughing and jamming popcorn in my mouth to prevent me speaking any more. The film eventually got underway and about half-way through, in a lull between action sequences, we both turned to take a sip of coke, and our eyes met. There was a moment, it was definitely a moment, when a jolt of electricity passed between us, and I felt that I was with someone I actually could like. The moment was broken by an almighty explosion in the film, and we released the straws from our mouths simultaneously, smiled, and turned back to the screen. 

Before the film ended, there were a few more ‘moments’ between us, and I even got a leg squeeze during the bit where Bruce’s partner was almost killed, and Bruce was swearing revenge and so on. When the film was over and Bruce had done in the bad guy and was celebrating with his now miraculously recovered mate and snogging the love interest, Natalie and I stayed in our seats for a while to save getting caught in the mass exodus and to finish off the popcorn. We did eventually get up and leave, and were able to wander out into the foyer, which was full of people waiting for the next film to start. Walking back to the car, I glanced at my watch and suggested a quick drink in the near-by pub. Natalie agreed without me having to twist her arm, so we took a sharp left turn and headed towards the Red Lion pub. I had my wallet out but Natalie wasn’t having it, so she made to run to the bar. “I’ll have half a Guinness please!” I called, and went to sit on the only just vacated leather couch by the roaring fire. I’ve never liked taking a seat while it’s still warm – you never know whether the previous occupant has been letting one off! But I took a risk, and took the seat. Natalie brought over the drinks – my half of Guinness and what looked like orange juice for her. “What’s that you’re drinking?” I asked. “Vodka and Orange,” she replied. I gave her a mock-scandalised look. “On a school night?! You rebel!” Natalie smiled and plonked herself down next to me. It was one of those sofas that makes everything slide into the centre, so even though she’d intended to leave a gap between us, she ended up almost on my lap. We struggled apart, and I offered to give her a push, but in the end we admitted defeat and drank our drinks in total discomfort. After we drained our glasses, we struggled to our feet and head back out to the car ready for home. I was going to do the whole chivalry thing again, but Natalie must have guessed because as soon as I’d unlocked the car, she dashed to open the driver’s door and stood there proudly. With a smirk on my face I gracefully climbed in and allowed her to shut the door. While she was walking round the rear of the car, I started the engine and crept forward a little bit. Natalie grabbed the passenger door and opened it. Just as she was about to jump in, I nudged the accelerator and the car glided forward once more. I could hear Natalie giggling as she tried to make a leap into the car one last time, so I took pity and let her in eventually. After she’d punched me on the arm and tried to give me a Chinese burn, we had to stop laughing because, quite frankly, our faces hurt, and I needed to wipe the tears from my eyes to drive. 

I pulled up outside Natalie’s house, and we wandered up the drive to the front door. As I waited for her to open the door, I was caught unawares by her leaning forward and giving me a kiss on the cheek. “If you keep it up, you might get a kiss on more than the cheek.” Before I could reply, and any further conversation could take place, the hall light came on and the door opened. Martha stood in the doorway, surveying the scene before her and smiling at us like we were teenagers that she’d caught up to no good. Natalie ducked past her sister into the house, and I followed hesitantly, well aware that I was as red as a beetroot. In the lounge I could hear mumbling, so I poked my head round the door to see Jimbo and Bobby sat on the sofa playing football on the Playstation. “Come on Bobby, lad. It’s gone eleven, and it’s a school night remember?” Bobby muttered something unintelligible to Jimbo and put his controller down. He scooped up his bag from the floor and brushed past me into the hall. Natalie and Martha had disappeared into the kitchen, so I popped my head round the door and announced our departure. Natalie came out and saw us to the door. As I nudged Bobby down the drive, I turned back and gave her a wink as she stood in the doorway. Natalie winked back and turned, closing the door behind her. 

Bobby sat in the car and looked at me. “How did it go then, dad?” He asked. “Not bad, son. Not bad,” I replied, and started the engine. Without another word, I pulled away from the kerb and we went off into the night.

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