There's no need to breathe between words. I'm sure the customers on the other end of the line can tell I'm pretty much dead inside from the second I pick up the phone and give them that robotic greeting that screams, 'Please, tell me all your problems with our products. I'm just dying to help you.'
Working at Keyes & Co isn't the worst thing in the world. It's a steady source of income- much more than most nineteen year olds can vouch for- and my hours are flexible. And the boss is nice to me, though I can't say that's due to my outstanding work ethic. More likely due to the fact that the girl sat on my left, my best friend since primary school, just so happens to be his daughter.
Rebecca Keyes; tall, smart and gorgeous. And my bloody saviour.
'Another vacuum malfunction?' she says as I put the phone into the holder, and then my head into my hands. She slices open the mail with a knife that I'm sure the rest of us would not be allowed to use in the office. I make a mental note to stay on her good side today.
'Yep. Apparently trying to clean the hamster cage while the hamster is still inside is not a good idea.'
'Yeah. Who would've known?' I say dryly. Of course, everyone in their right mind would have known- it's hardly rocket science. But apparently half of our customers are not in their right mind- the amount of calls like that I get in a day rank into their dozens. No wonder I'm always in need of a drink when I get home.
My parents were onto something when they named me Ginny. My life has been very gin-y- a.k.a. full of gin, mainly with tonic. I do prefer vodka, but I don't think Smirnoff was a fashionable name in nineties London.
Work. Drink. Work. Drink. There is definitely a pattern emerging.
'Are you coming out tonight?' says Rebecca, as if reading my mind.
'Good Lord, yes,' I say, without a moment's hesitation. I look up at the clock, watching the hands tick so slowly it's as if they're taunting me. Forty five minutes left. Forty five minutes, and then the weekend officially starts.
'Are you bringing Alex?' says Rebecca, screwing the letter into a ball and chucking it deftly into the recycling bin.
'Alex...?' I look at her blankly.
'Alex...' she says, looking over the little wall separating our desk pods. 'The one you're dating?'
'Oh, right, him!' I shake my head. 'No. Also, it's used to date.'
I feel Rebecca's sigh coming before she even opens her mouth. 'Seriously?'
'What?' I say, mock-offended. She just shakes her head, the tip of her tongue pushing out her cheek as she sighs. 'Just because the first guy I dated didn't happen to be the love of my life,' I sigh, scrolling through my emails. Someone is asking to return a vacuum cleaner because it “isn't sucky enough.” Wish I could say the same about my life. 'How is Steve, anyway?'
'Gorgeous, as always,' she grins. I never notice Rebecca's dark skin blush until she starts talking about her soon-to-be-husband. It's a mixture of nauseating and the cutest thing you'll ever see. 'I can't wait to see him,' she pines, glancing at the clock over her shoulder. 'I miss him.'
'It's been eight hours. You live together. Seriously.' I shake my head. There has never been a person that doesn't annoy me enough for me to want to see them that often. I have no idea how Steve and Rebecca spend every day with each other without one of them committing homicide.
'I know, it's been sooo long,' she sighs. She narrows her eyes as she sees me air gag. 'Just because you have no heart!'
'I have a heart. It's just buried far away. Along with the remaining shits I have to give.'
She rolls her eyes and gives up. She knows me too well to try fight with me on this one. While Rebecca has been a one-man woman since I’ve known her, I struggle to be a one-man a night woman sometimes. Maybe I just haven’t met the right one yet. Or maybe the right one is a load of bullshit. I’m reserving my judgement on that one.
‘Eccleston, fax these over to corporate,’ says Mrs Hawthorn, the hook-nosed woman from HR, shoving a hefty pile of papers down on top of my desk. She knocks over my Hello Kitty mug but she doesn’t seem to care, steamrolling down the office like there’s a fire to put out at the end of it.
‘Stop it,’ sighs Rebecca, slicing open another letter.
‘That look.’ She points at me with the knife.
‘The one you’re doing now, all pouty-mouth and crazy-eyes. I know that look. And Daddy might be able to protect you from some things, but if your manager sees you getting all stroppy…’ She purses her lips a little.
Despite the fact that Rebecca is the only person I know who still calls her father ‘Daddy’ without finding it weird, she has a point. I’ve been pushing my luck recently, and from the amount of sharp looks coming my way, I don’t think the ice is going to hold my weight much longer.
So I fax the stupid documents, even though no one’s used fax since the last century and I don’t even work in the HR department so I shouldn’t be doing her faxes for her anyway. Everyone seems to think ‘office assistant’ is interchangeable with ‘general dogsbody’. Wait until I’m the CEO, and then we’ll see how they like it.
‘Thank fuck,’ I whisper to myself when I catch sight of the clock on the wall. Five to five. A more magical sight has never been seen in this world.
‘Aren’t you going to finish that?’ Rebecca says, nodding towards the stack of documents still resting by the fax machine.
‘It’ll still be there in the morning,’ I say, returning to my desk to start shutting down my hundreds of Excel spreadsheets. ‘The moment I start staying late to finish some meaningless task, please shoot me.’
She shakes her head a little bit. Rebecca is the kind of person who will stay behind for hours, if necessary- unpaid- just to finish a job she’s started. I guess it’s different for her. She’s heading up the ranks to become a senior buyer, before she eventually takes over her dad’s role at the head of the company. Slacking off has never even crossed her mind.
‘Five o’clock on the dot,’ I say, triumphantly leaning back and stretching my arms behind my head. No one else has stirred from their desks yet, but I am swinging my bag onto my shoulder before another minute passes. ‘Coming?’
‘I’ll meet you there,’ Rebecca says, staring at her screen with an intent, furrowed-brow look. She is clicking her mouse so fast I start to wonder whether she’s actually playing a computer game instead of checking the stock report.
I don’t offer to wait, because lingering in the office means someone will find me another task to do, and working on my own time is not about to happen. Besides, if I wait for her in the bar, that means more alcohol for me. That’s just common sense.
The street is crawling with commuters bustling to enter the tube station conveniently located right next to our offices. After living in London for nineteen years, you’d think I’d be used to the constant bustle of people, but it still irks me. Especially the way people think they’re more important than you just because they’re trying to catch a train. Call me petty, but if I see someone pushing people out of the way to get to the front, I’ll sometimes stick my foot in their path. Just making karma’s workload a little lighter.
The best thing about this city is that there’s always a hidden gem waiting to be found. When Rebecca and I stumbled across Mikey’s, it didn’t look like much. Faded paint job, dusty windows, wilting flowers in the doorway. But inside, it was like a utopia of eclectic knick knacks and artwork that I’m pretty sure would fetch a hefty sum if Mikey ever put it to auction. He’s far too proud- and I hope he stays that way. To break up a collection as ridiculously perfectly put together as this would be sacrilege.
‘Hey Ginny,’ he says as I walk through the door, turning to pour me my usual cocktail before I even open my mouth. Some may say that’s a sign of alcoholism, but I prefer to think it shows I’m supporting local businesses.
‘Hey Mike,’ I say, leaning on the countertop. ‘How’s things?’
‘Same old, same old,’ he says, clunking away with his buckets full of ice. ‘You?’
‘You’re preaching to the choir,’ I sigh, rolling my eyes as he passes me my well-deserved mojito.
I sit there, sipping my cocktail at a table on my own, wondering if this is what my life is going to look like in twenty years’ time. I can just about pull off drinking alone with a kind of youthful mystique right now, but I don’t think it’s going to look as cute when I’m on the cusp of forty and still have nothing better to do with my life.
‘Bitch, please!’ I can hear Tristan’s voice before the door has even opened, the clomping of his wedges announcing his imminent arrival. The door swings open and in he walks, a welcome distraction in his fabulous array of multi-coloured feathers. Behind him, rather more conservatively dressed, follows Steve, Rebecca’s one true love, his face a little rosy around the cheeks.
‘More drama?’ I say as Tristan flounces over to the table and throws himself down in the chair next to me, Steve still trailing behind him.
‘This man needs some serious education. He’s never even heard of JoJo.’
‘JoJo…?’ Clearly this is not the answer Tristan was expecting from me, as his mouth drops so far open I can practically see his tonsils from here.
‘JoJo? The teen starlet? She was like my early 2000’s jam. She was bae. I can’t believe none of you cretins have ever heard of my bae.’ He proceeds to sing a little of a tune I vaguely recognise but can’t quite place. ‘Ugh, forget it. You utter heathens.’
Steve catches my eye and we both snort with laughter. Tristan pulls a face of mock indignation but eventually softens, reaching for my glass and taking a sip.
‘Becky still at the office?’ asks Steve, pulling a menu from the centre of the table. I don’t know why he even bothers looking- he’ll get the same as he always does, cheesy chips with garlic dip.
‘Yeah. Far be it for me to drag her away,’ I say, and Steve nods.
‘She’s so dedicated,’ he breathes, doing that same far away doe-eyed look Rebecca does when she talks about him. It’s more vomit-inducing than his greasy chip-fest.
‘Speak of the devil,’ says Tristan as the door opens. Rebecca strides in and grins when she sees Steve. She doesn’t acknowledge me or Tristan- she makes a beeline straight for her future hubby like nothing else in the world matters. Every time they see each other it’s like something straight out of a Hollywood Blockbuster. It was sweet at first, but now I’m starting to wish I could watch a thriller or something instead of this rom-com on repeat.
Rebecca sits down next to- or half on top of- Steve, and he instantly wraps his arms around her waist before ducking in for a full-on snog. I practically chuck up my cocktail as I try to tear my eyes away.
'Vile,' whispers Tristan, echoing my thoughts exactly. His eyes are trained on them with that fascinated horror, like watching a car crash, or a lion tearing apart a baby zebra.
'How are you, Miss Keyes?' he says, tickling her under her chin.
'Very well, Mr Barnes,' she coos, cosying up to him. 'Not long until you can't call me that any more,' she giggles. They look deep into each other's eyes and squeal, 'Seven weeks!' in this strange, squeaky voice only reserved for mice, and engaged couples, apparently. They then begin to tickle each other, right there at the table in Mikey’s, not caring that there is literally not a single person in the bar looking at anything but them.
'Straight people are really weird,' says Tristan, taking a long, deep sip of his pint.
'Agreed,' I mutter, mimicking his drinking action. 'Sometimes I think I'm the only one with any sense.'
Tristan's extended snort says it all.
'Cheer up, you miserable bastards,' scoffs Steve, waving a dismissive hand in our direction. I think it's his hand, at least- he and Rebecca are curled up so tightly their limbs have become one. 'Just because neither of you are as happy as us...'
'We're so happy,' giggles Rebecca, pulling him closer to her and planting a full, thick kiss on his lips.
'I think I preferred it when they were arguing,' says Tristan quietly, and I'm only half sure he's joking. It's true; up until the week they got engaged, an outing with Rebecca and Steve would normally involve at least one of them calling the other a knob, and someone having a drink poured over their head. The second he put a ring on it, they were all sunshine and laughter. And fingers and tongues, apparently...
I'm afraid we're about to watch them prematurely consummate their marriage when they finally break apart.
‘So much to do in seven weeks,’ says Rebecca, a note of panic slipping into her usually happy voice. ‘Ginny, we still need to find you a bridesmaid’s dress!’
‘Don’t panic, all in good time,’ I say with a smile. It’s not like I’m trying to stall her on purpose, but the later we leave it, the less chance she’ll have time to order me one of those frilly cupcake dresses with half a ton of fabric in the skirt alone. I’d be more than happy to just wear a nice dress from Topshop, in all honesty- but it is Rebecca’s wedding, after all.
‘Now, are you two planning on bringing a plus one or not, because dad is pressuring me to cut down the numbers,’ says Rebecca, stealing a cheesy chip from Steve’s plate.
‘I will be bringing my sister. She has a hopeless crush on Andy, and as much as I try to tell her she’s barking up the wrong tree, she still keeps on pining like a puppy dog,’ sighs Tristan.
‘Well, I don’t plan on bringing anyone,’ I say, swirling my drink round and round. ‘So you can cross one off.’
‘Ok, so I’ll put you down for a plus one each then,’ says Rebecca, much to Tristan’s amusement.
‘What? Where do you think I’m going to find a date from at this short notice?’
‘The same place you always seem to find them?’ says Tristan, waving his hand in the air. ‘Like, every time we go anywhere you somehow manage to find a date at the last minute.’
‘When have I ever done that?’ I scoff.
‘Steve’s birthday… Christmas…’
‘New year’s Eve…’
‘That time we went bowling…’
‘Ok, fine. Fine!’ I snap. It’s not like I go looking for guys just for the sake of it. If someone falls into my lap and I just so happen to have an event coming up, it would be rude not to extend the invitation… Right? ‘But this is a wedding. Taking a date to a wedding means something. I can’t take a randomer to Rebecca’s wedding.’ I add hastily, ‘And Steve’s.’
‘They wouldn’t be a randomer if you start dating them now. Isn’t it Valentine’s day on Sunday?’ says Rebecca, handily backing Tristan up.
‘Pfft, she’d never last that long,’ he snorts into his glass. I wait for someone to pick him up on it, but the others seem to think it’s an acceptable comment.
‘Excuse me?’ I say, crossing my arms as I look at him.
‘Oh, come on… You’ve never been in a relationship for more than a week. Do you really think you could keep a boyfriend all the way up to the wedding?’ Tristan raises his eyebrow and everyone stares at me. I think a challenge is about to be extended.
‘I totally could. Steve, don’t you think I could?’ I turn to our man-of-few-words for help in times of dire need, but he just blushes furiously.
‘Sure… I mean… I don’t… You can do whatever you want Ginny,’ he stumbles. Seems like I’m going to have to defend my honour the old fashioned way.
‘I bet you, five hundred pounds, that I can keep a boyfriend from Valentine’s Day until the wedding,’ I say, looking Tristan straight in the eye. Rebecca and Steve let out a gasp as Tristan’s lip curls up into a smirk. For my fashion-designer friend, £500 is just one item of clothing. For me, it’s almost a month’s wages. I didn’t think he’d take it seriously… But suddenly his arm is stretched out towards me.
‘Swear on it,’ he says, looking down at his hand.
I take a deep breath before I mumble; 'I, Virginia Louisa Eccleston, swear to the all the gods you can think of, that I will keep a boyfriend until Rebecca’s wedding.’
Rebecca and Steve raise their eyebrows in sync.
‘Fine, Rebecca and Steve’s wedding.'
I look at his hand, extended firmly towards me. I look at Rebecca and Steve, both of whom are looking at me with pity. I know they think I've just signed over my spending money for a month- and that thought somehow makes me even more determined.
I place my hand in Tristan's, and give it a firm shake.
It’s not until later that evening that I realise exactly what I’ve agreed to.
‘Alright dickhead, where’ve you been?’ says my sister Jackie as I step through the door, affectionate as always.
‘With the guys at Mikey’s,’ I reply, taking off my jacket and hanging it on the overflowing coat rack. With five sisters, one niece and mum and dad in the house, everything’s getting a little bit of a tight squeeze.
‘Nice. Maria broke your TV, by the way.’
‘What the hell?!’ Jackie is already walking away from me- this kind of news is not unusual in this household. ‘How did that happen? Why was she even in my room?’
‘Teenie’s not doing too well at potty training, that’s all I know. Floor was wet in their room for five hours so she thought she’d sneak into your room for Loose Women,’ she shrugs.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ I whisper under my breath. Even though I know all too well nothing’s sacred in this house, I wish my sisters would act their age a little more sometimes. We’re not all between the ages of zero and ten any more- and three of us have got full time jobs. Should I really not be able to trust them not to invade my privacy when I’m gone?
‘Tough tits,’ says Maria, walking out of the living room, her stuck-up nose indicating that she heard exactly what we were saying. On her hip she hoists her baby Tara, affectionately known as Teenie, who looks at me with her big, innocent blue eyes. ‘You wait until you have kids, Ginny. Then you’ll see.’
‘I’m never having kids, so you’ll be waiting a long time for me to come around to your side,’ I call after her as she stomps up the stairs. Jackie rolls her eyes before she walks off too. I walk slowly up the stairs, careful not to trip up on Teenie’s trail of toys littered all over the place.
I lay back on my bed and sigh as I catch sight of the TV screen flickering with faint lines which distort the picture. Fantastic. And now that I’m about to lose £500, it’s not like I’m going to have the money to replace it any time soon.
Why on Earth would I agree to such a stupid bet? It’s not like I have anyone lined up that I’d be even remotely interested in dating long term. For a moment, I consider contacting Alex, the latest guy I’ve been seeing- but then I remember that I’ve been blanking his texts for two weeks and that ship has probably sailed.
There’s only one thing for it.
My Tinder profile sits in a dark and dusty corner of my phone, usually only getting called to action after a dry spell, when I just want someone to compliment me and give me a bit of an ego boost. Call me selfish, I don’t care.
I quickly realised the kind of guys you match with at 3am are only interested in one thing- which is fine, if that’s what you’re into. They’re all so forward, I can’t help but laugh. Sometimes I just crave a bit of cheap, vulgar flirtation.
I flick through my profile, glancing at old one-liners I left hanging months ago.
Do you live on a chicken farm? Because you sure know how to raise a cock…
I snort at that one. If someone came up to me in the street with that line I would probably spit in their face, but this is Tinder. I literally signed myself up for it. So I give as good as I get, dishing back the cheeky replies to every line that comes my way.
I manage to settle on an attractive guy with dark brown hair and bulging, tattoo covered arms. Two things ticked off my checklist. After three years of being almost continuously on the pull, I have mastered my technique- and within no time I’ve arranged a date for tomorrow night. Sorted!
Or so I thought.
About five minutes after I put my phone down, I get another message from a different guy, skinnier, with sandy hair. He’s not exactly my type, but he has a nice smile, and he is, according to the app, less than two miles away from my house.
Hey, this might seem a bit forward but would you like to get drinks with me? I’m just headed out to Las Iguanas and I thought you might like to join me? Don’t worry if you’re busy :)
Oh God. Two dates, two nights in a row? Even though there’s nothing wrong with it, it just seems so much effort. I mean, how many jokes will I have to pretend to laugh at even though they’re not actually funny? God help me. But the thought of the free cocktails hopefully calling my name is too much for me to resist, and within five minutes I’ve replied.
Hey! Yes that sounds great, I’ll meet you there in ten?
Awesome! See you there :)
I hop out of bed and wriggle out of my work blouse and dog-tooth trousers, settling instead on a plain black jumpsuit which I’ll pair with my denim jacket. It’s surprisingly warm for February which is good, because wrapping yourself up in five hundred layers isn’t exactly the most attractive thing when you’re on the pull.
Ugh. As if dating isn’t already tricky enough, adding this pressure to it makes the whole thing entirely unappealing. What isn’t unappealing, however, is the thought of five hundred extra pounds in my pocket after the wedding- so I run my hands through my hair and set off on my way.
The sky is already dark and starless as I walk along. I have to shove my hands in my pockets to keep them away from the biting cold, and I’m starting to regret not wearing a scarf after all. I can feel my nose and cheeks going numb, and I really hope I’m not about to go all red and embarrassing when I sit down in the warm.
Max is waiting for me outside the restaurant all gentleman-like, wearing a bright blue parka jacket and a red bobble hat. His nose is more pointed than I expected, though he seems genuine enough, and he swoops in for a hug as soon as I introduce myself to him.
‘So nice to meet you!’ he grins, shaking his hands excitedly. I wonder if he’s just hyper or if he might actually be high- it’s hard to tell. This is going to be an interesting evening…
We sit down at the bar and order two mojitos and some nachos between us. I was secretly hoping this was going to be more of a full meal type thing as I’m starving a little bit, but it seems like he’s already eaten. I remind myself not to wolf down all the nachos when they arrive, and I even find myself fantasizing about Steve’s greasy mountain of chips from earlier. Oops. I hope Max didn’t just hear my stomach growl.
‘You have the most amazing hair,’ he says, his knees angled towards me. With that and the fact that he keeps puffing his chest out as he talks, I’d say he’s definitely biting.
‘Thank you,’ I say, taking a sip of my mojito. ‘It started out as a kind of dare but now I think I might keep it,’ I smile. My hair is the starting point of many conversations these days- not least the day I turned up at work after I had it done. Now that wasn’t a fun day. Going from waist length brown waves to an icy silver pixie crop overnight perhaps wasn’t the most subtle change, but over the last year I’ve got used to it. It’s become my signature look.
‘So what do you do for a living?’
Ahh, my favourite question.
‘I’m an office assistant for Keyes and Co. The vacuum cleaner company.’ I sigh internally at his blank face before I hum the jingle from all the local radio stations, and his face lights up with instant recognition.
‘Ohhh right, of course! I love that tune!’ he grins, humming it back to himself.
‘Yeah, I thought you might!’ I smile. I take another sip of my mojito and examine him in the dim light of the bar. Young, slim, attractive; he’s not too bad at all. He has nice hair and he’s dressed presentably- albeit if he has no sense of colour matching- he’s well-mannered and can hold a conversation as well as anyone on a first date. This might not be too bad, after all! I knew finding a match wouldn’t be too hard.
What the…? I sit back a little in my chair but Max doesn’t seem to notice anything is up. He carries on talking about his job as a painter and decorator, and the time he painted Mel C’s living room. I call BS, but that’s the least of my worries right now.
There it is again! I put my drink down on the counter and look at Max. He’s still talking, but his face is screwed up unnaturally and he looks like he’s breaking a sweat. I wait for him to say something- to explain it, to reassure me that I’m not hearing what I think I’m hearing- but no explanation comes. As I sit there, the third one comes, louder and clearer than the previous two. There’s no doubt about it; Max can’t stop breaking wind.
‘Are you ok?’ I have to ask as he looks across at me with moisture building in his eyes. I could see he was trying so hard to ignore it that the tears of relief almost spring forth as I ask.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he gasps, pressing his hand to his belly. The attractive, nice young man I saw earlier is quickly slipping out of my grasp- just as his dignity is slipping out of his. ‘I ate a really dodgy curry earlier and it’s gone straight through me.’ He lets out a little noise of anguish and I have to pretend I’m not hearing the other noises he’s making.
‘Maybe we should reschedule,’ I say, pulling my bag onto my lap. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, but now I’m afraid he’s about to literally explode all over the restaurant.
‘No, no! I’ll be fine,’ he insists, gesturing for me to stay sitting down. But I can see the pure panic on his face, and I can almost countdown the seconds until he makes a dash for the restroom.
Three, two, one…
‘I’ll see you later then!’ I cry at his back as he jumps off his stool and throws himself towards the loos. I grab my bag and make a run for it just as quickly, shrugging awkwardly at everyone looking at me as I go. I couldn’t be more embarrassed if I was stripped naked and parading through the middle of Oxford Street.
Really. It could only happen to me.
It isn’t until I’m halfway home that I let myself stop and laugh. I double over in the street until my cackle is echoing off the walls of the tall townhouses around me, the people inside probably thinking there’s a maniac on the loose. Too late to worry about that now.
I sit down on someone’s garden wall and brush the tears from my eyes, only now realising how cold it is as my breath crystallizes in the air in front of me. I fumble in my pocket for a cigarette and light it against the light breeze, just to warm my fingers. (This is an excuse that Rebecca never buys and that I know I should stop trying to get away with). I can’t wait to tell them all about this; my love life has reached an official low point.
The house is quiet by the time I get home, which is fine by me. I can’t deal with having to explain to my family where I’ve been and, if they ask, how it went. I feel I might actually cry if I have to put it into words. I consider texting Rebecca the gossip, but decide it can wait until after my next date tomorrow in case I can hopefully salvage some good news to go with it. The dating Gods do not seem to be looking on me kindly. Perhaps this is some kind of karma for all the guys I messed with in the past.
I shimmy into my pyjamas and crawl between the covers, trying desperately to force the memory of Max’s farts out of my head. Unsurprisingly he has left no messages on my phone- sometimes it’s best to just give it up as a bad job. That date was definitely one of them.
I roll onto my side and stretch my arm out to the empty side of the bed, trying to imagine someone else lying there. I admit, sometimes I think it would be nice to have a warm, strong man to cuddle up to in the middle of the night. But then I think about how much I love star fishing in the middle of the bed, and I think that guy would have to be pretty damn special to give up single life for.