It’s tasty. And it’s cheap...
Come on, accept it. She’s ditched me.
With any kind of realism, you have to accept it when you get home and the flat is nearly empty. How I can have been so blind, I don’t know. There must have been signs.
I could try to trace her, find her, go and beg… ask why… plead.
No, I couldn’t. Too much pride to beg for anything. If she’s chosen to leave me, that’s it. She must have reasons.
Devastated hardly begins to describe how I felt. I’d thought we were made for each other. Just great together – done the flat up; planning to have a family soon. We liked so many things the same – nights out, sex, meals, films, humour… I guess something was grating with her.
It’s all done and finished now. A bare flat. Even the bed and spare blankets. ‘That’s a mite mean,’ I told the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. ‘Maybe she didn’t want to give up her career; or have children? Met somebody else? Fancied a move to Tenerife?’ She had mentioned several of those options, actually.
It’s the sort of emptiness that eating can’t fill. It’s your chest and your head and your legs and bladder that are just as drained.
‘I must accept that it’s happened. That’s first. Then accept that it’s my own fault. It’s of my own doing. Maybe I won’t be able to pinpoint exactly what. But if I hadn’t been me, it wouldn’t have happened, would it?’ I read that in a self-help book once. It was after that big mashup and I was looking to kill myself – you find yourself at the bottom of a pit and whichever way you try to climb out, the slopes just keep collapsing and re-burying you, and the pit gets deeper and you never see out of it. Just the slipping, sliding, gravelly slopes in every direction.
“Take responsibility for everything that happens to you,” the book said. “Then you have no-one to blame and get bitter about. Only then you can start to identify the fault, and correct it; make amends, change direction – whatever it takes. Accept that you brought it on yourself.”
It doesn’t stop you finding a dim-lit corner down the pub to do that accepting in – it’s warmer than a flat without a heater or a bed. Plus, there’s plenty to drink; and there’s something comfy to sit on; and nobody knows you or has any interest in you.
It does work. Beer and whiskey, that is. Blaming yourself works, too. It doesn’t stop you being emptily sad and feeling a few tears drip away; and wiping them off quickly when the girl with a low top and a pinny comes up to see if you’re ready to order a meal. I wasn’t, but you have to buy something. So I kept my head down and pointed at the tatty menu…
‘The liver and onions?’ She looked dubious at my choice.
‘Yes. I know,’ I said, ‘Spartan upbringing and all that, but I like it and you don’t often see it on the menu. It’s tasty. And it’s cheap.’
She brought it ages later, ‘Sorry it’s been so long. Short-staffed.’ Bent to pick something up off the floor, flouting a very fine frontage view. Bit of a blushing smile when she saw me looking. I couldn’t help it. She put whatever she’d reached for on the table next to my plate. Had to smile – it was my cap, the beret with the tank corps badge. ‘Yours?’
I nodded and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. My eyes brimmed up. I kept my head down and waited till she’d gone.
The meal was a touch disappointing – the liver a fraction hard, and the onions undercooked. The mash must have been okay, I suppose, because I didn’t really notice it. More gravy would have helped, but my mind was on other things.
‘Sweet?’ She was back. Coquettish smile.
‘Couple more pints?’
‘You have to go to the bar for drinks. I can’t bring them to the table.’
There was a queue. It took ages.
Four girls were parked round my table by the time I turned to go back. Hi ho. I’m not one for starting a negative discussion with four attractive-ish ladies who’ve done nothing wrong, basically. They didn’t know… I looked round. Someone just leaving from two tables along, so I leapt in there before two couples who were trying to push past me. They gave me an irate mouthful as I sat down. ‘It’s a table for four… not just you.’ They stood there, furious.
‘You’re worked up about a table in a pub? Tiny minds you’ve got.’ I kept a good grip on my drinks and looked at them – the couples, and the drinks. Then I focused on my liquid sweet, and let the Nasty Four stand there and get on with their swearing.
They were gaining attention from round the bar, of one sort or another, when, ‘Come on, Padsy… Derek. Don’t want any trouble.’ It was my Fine View Lass come to my rescue. Or their rescue, as she saw it. ‘He’s in the Army – A Tankie. Back from Afghanistan – he’s lost mates there. He’ll blow any minute.’
They departed towards the bar, awaiting another opportunity to be seated.
Fine View Lassie, smiled, ‘It’s my fifteener,’ she said, as she parked herself with me. ‘Mind if I join you? They still call it a fag break.’ And slipped a double whiskey across the table towards me.
‘Anybody can sit with me for that.’ I think I managed a sour smile.
‘Have you been back long? Bad was it? Which Regiment? Where were you stationed? My dad was in the Armoured Infantry Brigade. You got somebody to look after you?’
‘I did have this morning. Not tonight.’ It seemed a shame to ruin her maiden-to-the-rescue act. But I wasn’t in the mood for stringing her along for entertainment, so I told her. ‘All I’ve lost is my girlfriend. Today. After nearly three years, she’s cleared off and left me. I’m working on where I went wrong. This’s her cap – she was in the Tanks, not me.’ I even managed a chuck – that’s not as much as a chuckle.
‘I got back a fortnight ago… left the army for good. And yes, it was bad – I was in the Catering Corps, and everybody moans at us.’
Right. That cooked it. Her smile faded. Miss Fine View could hardly leave quick enough now she knew I wasn’t the tank hero she’d imagined. That was okay – it was a good malt she’d left. I watched her leave. She sagged a little. Deal with it, I thought, and wondered if Beryl had sagged a little when she’d slammed the door behind her. Probably not: Beryl never sagged at anything. Fine girl. She needed to be, gunner in a Challenger 2.
The bargirl’s dad was Armoured Infantry, hmm? AI. Alien Intelligence, we called’em. Pack of thick sods.
I would have left, but I was comfy, and there was a really interesting stain on the floor, and the wet glass rings on the table looked like an Audi badge, or maybe the Olympics. And I was fairly sure I’d fall if I tried to stand. Funny how you think you’re sober and cold-clear thinking, but hardly dare stand up, much less wend your way to the toilet.
So I sat on my own a bit longer and kept telling myself, ‘Be alright tomorrow. My own fault. Mustn’t do it again, whatever.’
Of course, the necessity of leaving creeps up on you as the pub vents its population into the night, and they start clearing round you, and telling you to drink up. ‘You have to go…’ pointing to the door. He was polite, anyway, the barman… landlord… manager… whatever. ‘Catering?’ he said as I very steadily rose. ‘You know Sergeant Hobbs?’
‘Doesn’t ring a bell. There was a Sergeant Mobbs I knew. Catering’s all part of Logistics Corp now, and they’re mostly Reservists.’
‘You’ll never get home,’ he told me when he thought I’d stumbled trying to turn round to see where the toilets were. ‘Here, kip down in the back. Deece says y’ girl kicked you out?’
‘Kicked herself out, more like. Took the bed and the telly with her.’
It was a scrubby little room with a tatty settee and a couple of unstuffed chairs. ‘Staff room,’ he said. ‘They sometimes sleep’n’slop over if we have a late sesh.’
Fine View Deece was back around ten in the morning. She even knocked. But I was up anyway. Made a coffee – had to clean a load of cups first. Place was a pit-mess. And I swept the litter out, scrubbed the sink, emptied the bins, wiped the table down. And decided I was being a total compulsive nerk and stopped. No wonder Beryl left me.
I did her a coffee, too, Candice. And she posed on one of the upright chairs. Nice smile – not aimed at me, though. More like condescending, I thought. Catering’s too mundane for you, huh?
‘Catering?’ she said. ‘Really? Catering?’
‘I didn’t get on with tanks. Unless they were full of porridge.’ The silence was awkward. Time I’d gone. ‘I’ll be off. Thanks for the night’s board, and the whiskey.’ I rinsed my cup. And hers. ‘Force of habit. Sorry.’
‘No wonder she kicked you out. You’re obsessive.’
‘Yeah, right, and you’re a psycho-doc, huh?’
‘Barmaid, which is the same thing. And chef – I’m in the kitchen Monday to Thursday, five till nine.’
‘Psychoanalyse the Brussels, do you?’
‘I don’t try to understand them; I beat the eggs and—’
‘Whip the cream, yes, I know. Batter the fish? Er, there’s a few things I need to get to the shops for…’
Whimsical little smile, ‘Bed’n’telly?’
‘And the rest. See you.’
She came tripping and trapping after me, ‘Catering?’
‘For chuff’s sake, shut up about catering.’
‘No, no. I hate cooking. We’ve been advertising for a chef for weeks. If you’re free? Monday to Thursday? And, er, Fridays and Sat’d’ys if you could manage? Dad does it now.’
‘Who did the liver and onions last night?’
‘Oh.’ I thought about it. ‘I could start tonight.’