SHEMAIL – FIRST CHAPTER

SHEMAIL

(First Chapter of my unpublished novel ‘Shemail’…)

“How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?
How can I go forward when I don’t know which way to turn?
How can I go forward into something I’m not sure of,
Oh no, oh no”
John Lennon – ‘How?’
Part I
Chapter 1
I always found it difficult to know when to avert my gaze. I’d lost track of how long I’d been staring. So easy to do after three glasses of Chateau Neuf De Pape and when faced with such beauty. My empty stomach didn’t help, ensuring the alcohol went straight to my head urging my gaze to outstay its welcome. I knew I shouldn’t be looking so intently but I continued. Like a little boy told not to touch who touches. Or drivers on a motorway who slow down to rubberneck at an accident with glances they know are wrong.
I was at Pizza Express on Dean Street in London’s Soho waiting for my sister. I always felt a bit out of sorts when on my own in restaurants, not that dining solo was a regular hobby. To pass time I’d stared at the white ceiling for a while, humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to myself, probably with an inane grin on my face which no doubt aroused suspicious thoughts in my fellow diners. At any time there was always at least one random tune – classic rock, pop, 80s, Beethoven, movie theme tunes, whatever – sloshing around my brain. I tried to kill more time by reading the menu a few times. I couldn’t concentrate. The loud public school type with a Maldives tan and blue sports jacket hanging over his bleached 501s sitting to my left had provided an annoying temporary diversion. As if the whole restaurant really wanted to hear about his day on the equities markets and how much money he’d earnt.
The blonde who sat on her own two tables in front was hogging my attention. I stared at her some more. She was a vision within my vision. A babe. A hot chick. A right little sort. I’d first seen her just as I’d reached the crescendo to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in my head, when Freddie and Brian start singing ‘Galileo’ in falsetto and then the song lurches into the manic guitar section. The timing was immaculate, my internal soundtrack editing suite perfectly on time. She perched on the reed seat of the stock chrome Pizza Express chairs. I was mesmerized. Oh what would I give to be that chair, to have her sitting in my lap? To nuzzle into her soft nape and whisper sweet nothing into her ear.
She fidgeted and her olive green eyes caught mine for a tantalizing moment, as if she’d felt my thoughts. Was her twitch nervousness? Was the eye contact a flirtatious invitation or a warning? So hard to tell. Such opposite meanings in a furtive glance of which – excuse the pun – on the face of it there was so little difference to distinguish between the polarities of meaning. For me it was difficult to guage. My sixth sense in these matters had always been a tad inept, my social receptors charred and inaccurate from being burnt too many times from regrettable imbroglios and silly pecadilloes. Being a bloke, I often deduced I was the victim in these episodes, but if I’m completely honest, the cock ups were of my own engineering as I crashed around like a blind hulk.
I tried reading the menu but I couldn’t concentrate. It was the girl’s fault. She was cutesy; her perfect button nose suggested a Scandinavian lineage complemented by a petite figure and mellifluous blond locks. She had voluptuous lips and her visage was kissed by freckles. Hmm, ‘facking bootiful’ as they’d say on the Mile End Road. She looked like a model, as if she had just leaped out from the Gap billboard which towered over Tottenham Court Road where I waited for the bus home from work opposite Centrepoint. I fantastised over her perfume breath and how she would look in the morning when she had just woken up, lemon fresh and zingy. Forget “come-to-bed eyes”, these delicious orbs screamed “let’s stay in bed all day”.
My sister was now twenty minutes late and it was beginning to irk. Admittedly the meeting point was more convenient for me as I worked down the road at MPQ, a hip advertising and marketing agency in the heart of Soho, London’s media land. The agency catered for the ‘yoof’ market as we called it. I know it sounds trendy, but my job as Desktop Support in the IT Services department was far from hip or exciting. It was the creative department who were the true glory-grabbing rock stars at MPQ. I lived vicariously through them – the young cognoscenti who created zippy taglines for Fast Moving Consumer Goods and gorged themselves on expensive fish dishes at Zillis whilst drowning clients in rivers of pink Verve Clicquot. My lunch appointments were usually spent solo slavering over my PC, mayonnaise dribbling from my mouth from a reduced price Sainsbury’s Chicken Sandwich.  My sister and I met every month or so, I guessed now that she was probably late battling pickpockets and bargain hunters out for the August sales on a swarming Oxford Street.
Luckily for my sister’s tardiness I had this vision of loveliness within my range. I sneaked another peak. She was looking down, also pretending to read the menu. I wondered why she was there on her own. Was she on the verge of being jilted? Who wouldn’t turn up for a bird like that? You’d have to be nuts. Although I was no longer staring at her, my thoughts were of such intensity I’m sure she’d be picking up on them. I was vibeing her. Like an animal, I found it hard to focus on anything with such a being in my vicinity as my testosterone fizzed in my veins like cheap sparkling wine. Using her woman’s intuition she could probably sense that I was still thinking of her. Next time we had eye contact I planned a smile, or maybe even a wink, a cheeky gesture from a cheeky chappy such as me.
My fantasies started to run away. I imagined running down a wild Pacific beach with her in tow as the foamy surf tickled our tanned feet. I pictured us frolicking in meadows or getting frisky in haystacks whilst I sneezed from my assorted allergies. This train of thought was quickly broken as I noticed Miss Stockholm get up from her seat. She pushed her chair back and it screeched on the white tiled floor. She walked straight towards me. I froze and looked down at my empty plate on which I noticed a ginger eyelash, which was strange as I had black ones. The noise of her heels clacking on the tiled floor got closer.
“Do me a favour.” She now leant down with her hands on the table and moved her head closer to my ear.  Her accent was more Essex than Swedish. I wanted to disappear. Blood rushed to my head.
“Hi” I said in a high voice, looking up to give her a weak smile. Her icy expression told me I wasn’t about to get her phone number. I shrank further as I realised the other people in the restaurant had started to notice the mini kerfuffle now unfolding.
“Please. Please. PLEEAASE. Do me a favour and stop staring at me. You’re making me feel uncomfortable. My boyfriend’s coming soon so stop it. What are you anyway, a creep?”
“Okay, I didn’t, I’m sorry…I thought…”
I didn’t have a chance to offer any weak excuses as she about turned and went back to her table and sat down, taking her Ericsson mobile phone from her handbag as she punched an angry text into the keypad. She’d made her point. Very clearly. My fellow diners looked at me with expressions of puzzled sympathy. My redness reddened and I felt sweat trickle my collar.
“Sorry I’m late, I was trying on some shoes in Next. I forgot the time. It’s so crowded.” My sister had arrived and walked through the door without my noticing, missing the minor altercation by seconds. She was wearing a smock over her jeans, her hair cut into a short bob with a happy look on her face, no doubt fuelled by the escape of consumerism. I was hugely relieved by her diversion.
“Jesus, you look like a lobster. Are you okay?” She continued.
“Hey Fiona, better late than never, take a pew.” I said breathlessly.
“Wow, look, you’re dripping!”
“Fucking right, I’m sweating like a glass blowers arsehole. I’m glad you’re here. Have a drink,” I splashed some red wine into her glass. She didn’t touch the large bowl of the wine glass.
“Are you okay, you look really flustered?”
“Hmm. Just a mix up with who I thought was the Swedish Au Pair behind you. Don’t look though. Don’t…” Fiona turned around. She was now the little girl told not to touch.
“Eh? Same old Alistair then. I thought you were in a bit of trouble at work for your roving eyes and wicked ways?”
“Hmm, well. I think that’s all calmed down a bit now. Garlic dough?”
She was right. I had had ‘a bit of trouble’ at work. A few months ago I had a fling with Susan Clearwater, one of the PR girls at MPQ, and now our new hot-shot American CEO – Greg DiSalvo – had her in his love radar. I was surprised Fiona mentioned this incident as she was affording it far more significance than it merited. I guess superficially it was salacious and exciting gossip; Lowly Worker (me) gets embroiled in love triangle with Big Boss. Big Boss takes it on himself to let Lowly Worker know that his step is being closely watched. Lowly Worker is quite flattered but surprised as it – a drunken, unfulfilling and frankly forgettable shag – was, after all, something that happened before Big Boss was on the scene and now Lowly Worker and Femme were just friends.
Much more significant in my romantic life was my protracted and as yet, unaccomplished wooing of Jennifer Cook. We had been getting close for a few months now but it seemed like the ‘friends’ path we now trod was too worn for it be anything else but that. I’d had opportunities to pounce. The most obvious that springs to mind when we were waiting at the taxi rank after a drunken night out in Islington with her leaning into me – “that lllast vodka tonic has sssent me right over the llledge” – she slurred huskily, as I held her close and she snuggled into me. Not that I – me? – would be the type to use an intoxicated state as a lubricant to love, but as far as green lights go, it was surely greener than a row of solar panels. All I would have had to do was pull her closer and home in for some hopefully reciprocated lip action.
I deduced that I must like her too much to make that leap for fear of rejection and blow out. Not to mention the embarrassment of the moment if she recoiled. And then the probable loss of a good friend. Like a puppet with paralysis, there were invisible strings holding me back. Isn’t that always the case, those pesky invisible mental fear strings freezing us out from the things we really want? To say it’s all in the mind, well that’s an understatement. The French philosopher Descartes said “I think therefore I am” – he knew he existed because he was thinking. That might have been true in 17th Century France, but my late 20th Century urban male existence was more a case of ‘I think therefore I am not’ – I thought too much and as a result didn’t exist. Do you get me?
“How’s Glen? Still as exciting as ever?” I asked after Fiona’s nice-but-dull husband Glen. He was about as exciting as a week’s back to back Coronation Street repeats.
“Fine, he’s playing squash tonight. Actually he’s been promoted at work, so the extra money’s going to be good. We’re going to Zakynthos in two weeks. Listen, big brother, I have some news.”
“What? What’s this, little sis? This sounds serious?” I frowned and twitched with anticipation. “What is it Fiona?” I could tell by her beaming smile it wasn’t bad news.
“You’re going to be an uncle!” Fiona’s face lit up even more.
“Fuck. No way! Congratulations.” I nearly choked on my garlic bread.
“Wow, I’m in shock. Jesus. I know you guys were trying but it’s…it’s incredible. Do you know what sex ‘it’ is?” My thoughts were racing ahead. It felt uncouth to refer to my new unborn nephew or niece as ‘it’.
“Not yet…I’m only ten weeks pregnant so you’re one of the first to know. It’s a bit early for sex detection yet.”
“Yup, sure if he’s a boy his little pecker won’t come up on the radar right now.”
“Think we’re going to be old-fashioned about it and wait to see what pops out.”
“Shit, congratulations again. Glad you got there first with the kid thing, not that I ever could be relied on in that department. I need to work out how to look after numero uno first. Cheers. Congrats.” I raised my glass and took a greedy swig of wine.
“I’d better not, I’m not going to drink in this pregnancy.”
“Okay, I understand, I thought ‘they’ said it’s okay to drink a little” I replied, whilst lighting a Benson and Hedges. Fiona turned her nose up and I blew smoke upwards to avoid contaminating my new unborn relative. I was thrilled at the news.
“You look good though sis. Really good. ‘Blooming’, isn’t that what they say to pregnant woman? And you’ve got two weeks of Greek sun to look forward to. Lucky girl. Blooming marvelous is what I say”
“I know, can’t wait. London’s too crowded. I need to get away and chill,” Fiona smiled.
That sounded like just what I needed, relaxing on a tranquil island and recuperating with a loved one. All my recent holidays had been the antithesis of that. The year before in the summer of 1998 my last Med holiday had been to Ibiza and I had come back with a severe dose of White Island Fever. By the end I needed another holiday to recover. Too much partying, drink and disco biscuits meant I picked up a case of serious flu and god knows how many undetected STDs. My serotonin levels had been shot and it felt like my liver had shriveled like a slug left in the sun. It was disco fever 1990s style with only vague memories and the dull thud of tech house ringing in my ears left as holiday mementoes.
“Getting away would be good. Although I don’t mind all the people in London so much. Summer’s here you can feel the buzz in the air. And all that bare flesh. I’m having lunch in Soho Square now with my perv glasses on.”
“Perv glasses?”
“You know, dark black shades so you can’t see which way my eyeballs are going so I can check out the totty. Perv-fect.”
“Alistair when are you going to grow up?” Fiona shook her head distastefully.
“Never, I hope.”
I am 27 years old and my sister Fiona is two years younger than me. Despite my seniority, she was the one who looked after me. Of course, there was the whole big brother paternal thing going on on my behalf. But she didn’t really need my help. She was grounded and stable. Married to Glen nice-but-dull. Life was never going to be rock and roll but then that’s not what they wanted. A two-bed semi in Enfield, bills paid on time, two weeks’ Med holiday a year and now the imminent sound of tiny pattering feet to complete the perfect image of normalcy.
We stayed chatting and eating till 8.45. I noticed two bottles of wine had been polished off and remembered Fiona wasn’t drinking. Looking at them made me suddenly feel drunk. I thought of hoovering up a bit of cocaine in the toilet I had left from last weekend to balance me out. It was in my little side pocket wrapped up in a faded corner of Angling Times magazine prodding expectantly into my upper thigh. Then Mr. Sensible came out and cautioned me that it was a school night. If I succumbed I ‘d end up till the random hours chatting to random people in random bars and the next day at work I’d look like an extra from Night Of The Living Dead.
I swayed as I took Fiona down into the dank pits of London AKA the tube system at Tottenham Court Road. It was the oldest subway network in the world and the trundling trains and grimy stations proved it. People moved in every direction. The hot air that wafted up from the bowels of the city was infused with that stifling urban concoction of sweat, fuel and over-cooked concrete. The smell had a staleness to it – it was the smell of thousands of funky armpits.  An unwashed odour rising from the legions of office workers going home after another sour, smelly, stressful day. London was a buzzing nest of organized chaos. I congratulated Fiona again and then kissed and hugged her at the barrier as she disappeared into the crowds. I battled back up the stairs alone against streams of suits, tourists, foreign language students and Big Issue sellers. I was thirsty and thought I’d have a pint of lager for a nightcap, knowing this would probably work its effect on the walls of my bladder as I sat on the top of a Number 38 Bus trundling along somewhere near Upper Street. One for the road. Like always – despite knowing it would be bad for me – I still did it

“How can I go forward when I don’t know which way I’m facing?
How can I go forward when I don’t know which way to turn?
How can I go forward into something I’m not sure of,
Oh no, oh no”

John Lennon – ‘How?’

Chapter 1

I always found it difficult to know when to avert my gaze. I’d lost track of how long I’d been staring. So easy to do after three glasses of Chateau Neuf De Pape and when faced with such beauty. My empty stomach didn’t help, ensuring the alcohol went straight to my head urging my gaze to outstay its welcome. I knew I shouldn’t be looking so intently but I continued. Like a little boy told not to touch who touches. Or drivers on a motorway who slow down to rubberneck at an accident with glances they know are wrong.

I was at Pizza Express on Dean Street in London’s Soho waiting for my sister. I always felt a bit out of sorts when on my own in restaurants, not that dining solo was a regular hobby. To pass time I’d stared at the white ceiling for a while, humming Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to myself, probably with an inane grin on my face which no doubt aroused suspicious thoughts in my fellow diners. At any time there was always at least one random tune – classic rock, pop, 80s, Beethoven, movie theme tunes, whatever – sloshing around my brain. I tried to kill more time by reading the menu a few times. I couldn’t concentrate. The loud public school type with a Maldives tan and blue sports jacket hanging over his bleached 501s sitting to my left had provided an annoying temporary diversion. As if the whole restaurant really wanted to hear about his day on the equities markets and how much money he’d earnt.

The blonde who sat on her own two tables in front was hogging my attention. I stared at her some more. She was a vision within my vision. A babe. A hot chick. A right little sort. I’d first seen her just as I’d reached the crescendo to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in my head, when Freddie and Brian start singing ‘Galileo’ in falsetto and then the song lurches into the manic guitar section. The timing was immaculate, my internal soundtrack editing suite perfectly on time. She perched on the reed seat of the stock chrome Pizza Express chairs. I was mesmerized. Oh what would I give to be that chair, to have her sitting in my lap? To nuzzle into her soft nape and whisper sweet nothing into her ear.

She fidgeted and her olive green eyes caught mine for a tantalizing moment, as if she’d felt my thoughts. Was her twitch nervousness? Was the eye contact a flirtatious invitation or a warning? So hard to tell. Such opposite meanings in a furtive glance of which – excuse the pun – on the face of it there was so little difference to distinguish between the polarities of meaning. For me it was difficult to guage. My sixth sense in these matters had always been a tad inept, my social receptors charred and inaccurate from being burnt too many times from regrettable imbroglios and silly pecadilloes. Being a bloke, I often deduced I was the victim in these episodes, but if I’m completely honest, the cock ups were of my own engineering as I crashed around like a blind hulk.

I tried reading the menu but I couldn’t concentrate. It was the girl’s fault. She was cutesy; her perfect button nose suggested a Scandinavian lineage complemented by a petite figure and mellifluous blond locks. She had voluptuous lips and her visage was kissed by freckles. Hmm, ‘facking bootiful’ as they’d say on the Mile End Road. She looked like a model, as if she had just leaped out from the Gap billboard which towered over Tottenham Court Road where I waited for the bus home from work opposite Centrepoint. I fantastised over her perfume breath and how she would look in the morning when she had just woken up, lemon fresh and zingy. Forget “come-to-bed eyes”, these delicious orbs screamed “let’s stay in bed all day”.

My sister was now twenty minutes late and it was beginning to irk. Admittedly the meeting point was more convenient for me as I worked down the road at MPQ, a hip advertising and marketing agency in the heart of Soho, London’s media land. The agency catered for the ‘yoof’ market as we called it. I know it sounds trendy, but my job as Desktop Support in the IT Services department was far from hip or exciting. It was the creative department who were the true glory-grabbing rock stars at MPQ. I lived vicariously through them – the young cognoscenti who created zippy taglines for Fast Moving Consumer Goods and gorged themselves on expensive fish dishes at Zillis whilst drowning clients in rivers of pink Verve Clicquot. My lunch appointments were usually spent solo slavering over my PC, mayonnaise dribbling from my mouth from a reduced price Sainsbury’s Chicken Sandwich.  My sister and I met every month or so, I guessed now that she was probably late battling pickpockets and bargain hunters out for the August sales on a swarming Oxford Street.

Luckily for my sister’s tardiness I had this vision of loveliness within my range. I sneaked another peak. She was looking down, also pretending to read the menu. I wondered why she was there on her own. Was she on the verge of being jilted? Who wouldn’t turn up for a bird like that? You’d have to be nuts. Although I was no longer staring at her, my thoughts were of such intensity I’m sure she’d be picking up on them. I was vibeing her. Like an animal, I found it hard to focus on anything with such a being in my vicinity as my testosterone fizzed in my veins like cheap sparkling wine. Using her woman’s intuition she could probably sense that I was still thinking of her. Next time we had eye contact I planned a smile, or maybe even a wink, a cheeky gesture from a cheeky chappy such as me.

My fantasies started to run away. I imagined running down a wild Pacific beach with her in tow as the foamy surf tickled our tanned feet. I pictured us frolicking in meadows or getting frisky in haystacks whilst I sneezed from my assorted allergies. This train of thought was quickly broken as I noticed Miss Stockholm get up from her seat. She pushed her chair back and it screeched on the white tiled floor. She walked straight towards me. I froze and looked down at my empty plate on which I noticed a ginger eyelash, which was strange as I had black ones. The noise of her heels clacking on the tiled floor got closer.

“Do me a favour.” She now leant down with her hands on the table and moved her head closer to my ear.  Her accent was more Essex than Swedish. I wanted to disappear. Blood rushed to my head.

“Hi” I said in a high voice, looking up to give her a weak smile. Her icy expression told me I wasn’t about to get her phone number. I shrank further as I realised the other people in the restaurant had started to notice the mini kerfuffle now unfolding.

“Please. Please. PLEEAASE. Do me a favour and stop staring at me. You’re making me feel uncomfortable. My boyfriend’s coming soon so stop it. What are you anyway, a creep?”

“Okay, I didn’t, I’m sorry…I thought…”

I didn’t have a chance to offer any weak excuses as she about turned and went back to her table and sat down, taking her Ericsson mobile phone from her handbag as she punched an angry text into the keypad. She’d made her point. Very clearly. My fellow diners looked at me with expressions of puzzled sympathy. My redness reddened and I felt sweat trickle my collar.

“Sorry I’m late, I was trying on some shoes in Next. I forgot the time. It’s so crowded.” My sister had arrived and walked through the door without my noticing, missing the minor altercation by seconds. She was wearing a smock over her jeans, her hair cut into a short bob with a happy look on her face, no doubt fuelled by the escape of consumerism. I was hugely relieved by her diversion.

“Jesus, you look like a lobster. Are you okay?” She continued.

“Hey Fiona, better late than never, take a pew.” I said breathlessly.

“Wow, look, you’re dripping!”

“Fucking right, I’m sweating like a glass blowers arsehole. I’m glad you’re here. Have a drink,” I splashed some red wine into her glass. She didn’t touch the large bowl of the wine glass.

“Are you okay, you look really flustered?”

“Hmm. Just a mix up with who I thought was the Swedish Au Pair behind you. Don’t look though. Don’t…” Fiona turned around. She was now the little girl told not to touch.

“Eh? Same old Alistair then. I thought you were in a bit of trouble at work for your roving eyes and wicked ways?”

“Hmm, well. I think that’s all calmed down a bit now. Garlic dough?”

She was right. I had had ‘a bit of trouble’ at work. A few months ago I had a fling with Susan Clearwater, one of the PR girls at MPQ, and now our new hot-shot American CEO – Greg DiSalvo – had her in his love radar. I was surprised Fiona mentioned this incident as she was affording it far more significance than it merited. I guess superficially it was salacious and exciting gossip; Lowly Worker (me) gets embroiled in love triangle with Big Boss. Big Boss takes it on himself to let Lowly Worker know that his step is being closely watched. Lowly Worker is quite flattered but surprised as it – a drunken, unfulfilling and frankly forgettable shag – was, after all, something that happened before Big Boss was on the scene and now Lowly Worker and Femme were just friends.

Much more significant in my romantic life was my protracted and as yet, unaccomplished wooing of Jennifer Cook. We had been getting close for a few months now but it seemed like the ‘friends’ path we now trod was too worn for it be anything else but that. I’d had opportunities to pounce. The most obvious that springs to mind when we were waiting at the taxi rank after a drunken night out in Islington with her leaning into me – “that lllast vodka tonic has sssent me right over the llledge” – she slurred huskily, as I held her close and she snuggled into me. Not that I – me? – would be the type to use an intoxicated state as a lubricant to love, but as far as green lights go, it was surely greener than a row of solar panels. All I would have had to do was pull her closer and home in for some hopefully reciprocated lip action.

I deduced that I must like her too much to make that leap for fear of rejection and blow out. Not to mention the embarrassment of the moment if she recoiled. And then the probable loss of a good friend. Like a puppet with paralysis, there were invisible strings holding me back. Isn’t that always the case, those pesky invisible mental fear strings freezing us out from the things we really want? To say it’s all in the mind, well that’s an understatement. The French philosopher Descartes said “I think therefore I am” – he knew he existed because he was thinking. That might have been true in 17th Century France, but my late 20th Century urban male existence was more a case of ‘I think therefore I am not’ – I thought too much and as a result didn’t exist. Do you get me?

“How’s Glen? Still as exciting as ever?” I asked after Fiona’s nice-but-dull husband Glen. He was about as exciting as a week’s back to back Coronation Street repeats.

“Fine, he’s playing squash tonight. Actually he’s been promoted at work, so the extra money’s going to be good. We’re going to Zakynthos in two weeks. Listen, big brother, I have some news.”

“What? What’s this, little sis? This sounds serious?” I frowned and twitched with anticipation. “What is it Fiona?” I could tell by her beaming smile it wasn’t bad news.

“You’re going to be an uncle!” Fiona’s face lit up even more.

“Fuck. No way! Congratulations.” I nearly choked on my garlic bread.

“Wow, I’m in shock. Jesus. I know you guys were trying but it’s…it’s incredible. Do you know what sex ‘it’ is?” My thoughts were racing ahead. It felt uncouth to refer to my new unborn nephew or niece as ‘it’.

“Not yet…I’m only ten weeks pregnant so you’re one of the first to know. It’s a bit early for sex detection yet.”

“Yup, sure if he’s a boy his little pecker won’t come up on the radar right now.”

“Think we’re going to be old-fashioned about it and wait to see what pops out.”

“Shit, congratulations again. Glad you got there first with the kid thing, not that I ever could be relied on in that department. I need to work out how to look after numero uno first. Cheers. Congrats.” I raised my glass and took a greedy swig of wine.

“I’d better not, I’m not going to drink in this pregnancy.”

“Okay, I understand, I thought ‘they’ said it’s okay to drink a little” I replied, whilst lighting a Benson and Hedges. Fiona turned her nose up and I blew smoke upwards to avoid contaminating my new unborn relative. I was thrilled at the news.

“You look good though sis. Really good. ‘Blooming’, isn’t that what they say to pregnant woman? And you’ve got two weeks of Greek sun to look forward to. Lucky girl. Blooming marvelous is what I say”

“I know, can’t wait. London’s too crowded. I need to get away and chill,” Fiona smiled.

That sounded like just what I needed, relaxing on a tranquil island and recuperating with a loved one. All my recent holidays had been the antithesis of that. The year before in the summer of 1998 my last Med holiday had been to Ibiza and I had come back with a severe dose of White Island Fever. By the end I needed another holiday to recover. Too much partying, drink and disco biscuits meant I picked up a case of serious flu and god knows how many undetected STDs. My serotonin levels had been shot and it felt like my liver had shriveled like a slug left in the sun. It was disco fever 1990s style with only vague memories and the dull thud of tech house ringing in my ears left as holiday mementoes.

“Getting away would be good. Although I don’t mind all the people in London so much. Summer’s here you can feel the buzz in the air. And all that bare flesh. I’m having lunch in Soho Square now with my perv glasses on.”

“Perv glasses?”

“You know, dark black shades so you can’t see which way my eyeballs are going so I can check out the totty. Perv-fect.”

“Alistair when are you going to grow up?” Fiona shook her head distastefully.

“Never, I hope.”

I am 27 years old and my sister Fiona is two years younger than me. Despite my seniority, she was the one who looked after me. Of course, there was the whole big brother paternal thing going on on my behalf. But she didn’t really need my help. She was grounded and stable. Married to Glen nice-but-dull. Life was never going to be rock and roll but then that’s not what they wanted. A two-bed semi in Enfield, bills paid on time, two weeks’ Med holiday a year and now the imminent sound of tiny pattering feet to complete the perfect image of normalcy.

We stayed chatting and eating till 8.45. I noticed two bottles of wine had been polished off and remembered Fiona wasn’t drinking. Looking at them made me suddenly feel drunk. I thought of hoovering up a bit of cocaine in the toilet I had left from last weekend to balance me out. It was in my little side pocket wrapped up in a faded corner of Angling Times magazine prodding expectantly into my upper thigh. Then Mr. Sensible came out and cautioned me that it was a school night. If I succumbed I ‘d end up till the random hours chatting to random people in random bars and the next day at work I’d look like an extra from Night Of The Living Dead.

I swayed as I took Fiona down into the dank pits of London AKA the tube system at Tottenham Court Road. It was the oldest subway network in the world and the trundling trains and grimy stations proved it. People moved in every direction. The hot air that wafted up from the bowels of the city was infused with that stifling urban concoction of sweat, fuel and over-cooked concrete. The smell had a staleness to it – it was the smell of thousands of funky armpits.  An unwashed odour rising from the legions of office workers going home after another sour, smelly, stressful day. London was a buzzing nest of organized chaos. I congratulated Fiona again and then kissed and hugged her at the barrier as she disappeared into the crowds. I battled back up the stairs alone against streams of suits, tourists, foreign language students and Big Issue sellers. I was thirsty and thought I’d have a pint of lager for a nightcap, knowing this would probably work its effect on the walls of my bladder as I sat on the top of a Number 38 Bus trundling along somewhere near Upper Street. One for the road. Like always – despite knowing it would be bad for me – I still did it.

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