I’ve reduced the number of works I’m making available on the site, in order to have a more honest go at having stuff published. This short story was written in July 2013, which seems a world away, and was put in front of the London Road Irregulars, which was a lovely support group that fizzled out a bit. A cursory look doesn’t encourage me that this style of writing is particularly prized by submissions editors, but I like it, so I’m going to put it up here. It’s pretty much as-was, with only a few minor tweaks, and certainly without the helpful notes I received on it, but it’s a nice read for a Friday.
It was a cold day. It looked like it was going to snow. Matt regretted losing his gloves. He warmed his hands on the coffee cup and stared out the window. He could see the schoolchildren on the zebra crossing, heading to Sainsbury’s, the occasional car passing by, and the empty table outside the café. A little optimistic for this time of year, perhaps, setting a table outside. He sipped his coffee and struggled to remember what type it was – a latte? Mocha? Since he didn’t drink coffee unless he was meeting up with someone, he never got the hang of the menu, and usually went for whichever name he could blurt out the quickest.
He took his phone out of his trouser pocket and checked the time. She was ten minutes late. He fiddled with it a few moments, glancing over recent texts and contemplating new ones, then put it away again. He sighed and considered what to talk to her about.
A man in his late twenties walked past the window. He had a closely-cropped beard and was wearing a bobble hat semi-ironically. Matt watched him go by, earphones in, dead to the world, and wondered where he was heading to.
The door opened. Rosy spotted him immediately, strode through and dumped her bags on the floor by the other chair.
“Hello! How are you?” she said brightly, taking off her scarf.
“I’m very well, and you?” said Matt, and stood up to greet her.
“Not too bad,” she replied. They hugged, then he sat down as Rosy went to get a drink.
Rosy was beautiful. She had brown hair to her shoulders, green eyes, and an easy smile. Her skin was pale, and her legs and arms were thin. When they hugged, her head tucked neatly under his chin, and her arms wrapped around him tightly, and she squeezed just before letting him go. She was wearing a cream coat, and when she took her green woolly hat off her hair bounced into 1950s curls. She paid for her coffee and returned to the table.
“Been shopping, I see,” said Matt.
“It’s my sister’s birthday in a few weeks,” said Rosy. “On one hand, it’s a bit sad it’s so soon after Christmas, but on the other it means I can justify going around the sales. It’s such a burden.” She smirked, then took a sip of coffee.
Matt laughed, then asked, “How old is she going to be?”
“Seventeen, the little shit. I wish I was seventeen. I’m so old,” she said.
“You are. Twenty-one, it’s practically at death’s door,” said Matt.
“At least I’ve got a boyfriend now. My nan’s stopped calling me a spinster.”
Matt tensed, but managed to cover it by sipping some coffee. Then, as offhandedly as he could, asked after Rosy’s boyfriend.
“Joe? He’s alright. Still on his skiing holiday, the sod. Very unconcerned about his revision, I say, but it’s his degree,” she said.
“Jealous of Joe? Who’d be jealous of him?” Rosy laughed, then added, “I’m joking. He’s sweet.”
“Hm,” said Matt, and drunk some more coffee.
Matt didn’t like Joe. Joe seemed like a nice guy, but Matt knew better. He knew that Joe only seemed nice because he didn’t have enough of a personality to offend anyone. He liked the same movies as everyone else, listened to the music they played in clubs at home, drank boring lager, or Strongbow, perhaps Jaegerbombs if he was feeling adventurous, and supported Manchester United.
Rosy, though, she was an artist. She visited museums on weekends, read interesting books, made her own jewellery, had strong and spiky opinions on the movies she saw, and always tried the cocktails she hadn’t had before. Sure, she also supported Manchester United, but that’s just to piss off her dad, who was born in Manchester. She has an excuse. Joe came from Chiswick. Matt didn’t know what she saw in Joe.
“How about you, Matt? How are you doing in the girlfriend hunt?” asked Rosy.
“Ha. Not great. I don’t like anyone,” said Matt, shifting awkwardly in his chair.
“How about Sally? Have you asked her out?”
“I don’t like Sally,” he said.
Rosy put her coffee on the table with a bang, and sat up straight. “What do you mean you don’t like her? Sally’s lovely! Why don’t you like Sally?!”
“I do like Sally! We get on! It’s just… I don’t like her.”
“Ask her out on a date, you might be surprised,” Rosy said, settling back down into her chair.
“There’s no point. I usually… sort of know when I like someone, and I just don’t like Sally. She’s gorgeous, she’s funny, I like being around her, I should like her, but I don’t,” he said.
“That’s a shame. Sally deserves someone nice,” she said.
“Then why are you trying to set her up with me?” Matt joked.
“You are nice! That’s what I mean, you’re nice, she’s nice, you both deserve someone nice, it’d have been-”
“Nice?” said Matt.
“Shut up,” she said. She hugged her right leg against her chest, smiled at him, and sipped some coffee. “You’ll find someone soon. There’s got to be one woman in the whole of Leicester that meets your high standards.”
“Yes, I’m sure there is,” said Matt, and changed the subject.
Matt walked home alone. The coffee had lasted about twenty minutes more, then Rosy had to dash off to meet her housemate and do some groceries. It was getting towards rush hour, and the traffic on the road he walked beside was steadily increasing, but the sunlight was still just holding out. He put the collar of his coat up against the wind, tightened his scarf, and tried not to think about her.
Instead, his mind drifted to Caitlin. When he was twelve, he adored Catilin. He never did anything so vulgar as to tell her, though. Over the next few years, they shared the bus to school – Matt would get off first to go to his, and then she would stay on it to get to hers. They talked, as part of the group on the top deck, but never really to each other. Occasionally, Matt would date or get off with one of her friends, and he’d hear about her – what she said in this lesson, what she did this lunchtime, and so on – and he’d remember this much more than anything he did with these other girls.
Eventually, he got issued a new bus pass, which was for a different route. He resolved to say or do something, make some sort of connection with Caitlin, before he had to switch buses. However, it turned out on this last chance that the bus he took was too early, or too late, or that Caitlin’s school had already broken up, or his had broken up early – he couldn’t remember. In any case, Caitlin wasn’t there, and neither was anyone else, so Matt spent the entire journey home cursing himself for entirely missing his opportunity.
It turned out it wouldn’t be that long before he saw Caitlin again – just over a year later, in a theatre – but by then it was different. The Caitlin he had loved – at least, loved in the way a child or a teenager loves – had somehow receded, and by the time sixth form came along, and they began sharing the same bus, she was a different person, and not one he particularly cared for. The longing for the old Caitlin hung around, but it was merely in lieu of something real to replace it with, since he’d long since moved on. Then he went to uni.
Matt crossed the road and towards the park. He decided to take a leisurely route that ran around it, since he was in no particular hurry to get anywhere The trees were bare, the twisted branches scratching the cloudy sky, and their leaves trodden on and decomposing underfoot. The grass was still a little wet from the morning’s frost, since there hadn’t been enough sun that day to dry it out completely. The light was still slowly fading, but the streetlamps were already on, harsh and yellow. A couple walked slowly past him, huddled up in winter clothing and against each other. To his left, across the other side of the park, were the university buildings. He couldn’t see the seminar room where he first met Rosy, but it was in the building adjacent to the tallest tower and its grey windows, reflecting the sky. To his right, the roads that led to the student village, that he had walked down so many times in first year. He turned a corner and walked past a pub, one which he had visited more times than any other, where once he sang karaoke drunkenly and loudly, then stumbled home alone in the pouring rain, and felt as if the world was compressing in on him, crushing air from all the spaces in his body, his stomach churning and his eyes swollen, and he cursed all of his bad luck and rotten decisions and how it always seemed to be him than lost out, always. Matt kept walking.
He walked past the turning off towards his house, too. He took the path towards the city centre. There weren’t so many people out, but those who were tended to be walking the opposite direction to him, or much slower. He found himself at the bridge over the main road, and stopped to look out towards the rugby stadium, and the area of houses hidden behind it. He’d helped Rosy move into her house over there, carried boxes from the car, and was there right through to the end of the impromptu housewarming party. Rosy asked him to come into her room as the party wound down. He helped her make her bed, both laughing and getting tangled in sheets. Then, once the bed was made, she went up to him. She hugged him, and wished him a safe journey home. He woke up the next day on a friend’s sofa. Matt continued walking into the city centre.
By now it was dark. At the end of the path, bars, pubs and clubs familiar from many nights out started appearing. As he passed them, he remembered the drinks they served, the music they played, the parties and bar crawls he was on, the costumes he wore, the people he talked to or danced with or kissed or took home, but also those he hadn’t had the courage to approach, rejected him, or pretended he wasn’t there. Matt continued straight ahead, or as straight as he could manage, since he was now heading down individual roads and streets. He found himself at the top end of the high street. To his left was his favourite nightclub, and the less familiar side of town beyond it. Matt turned right, and headed straight down the high street. It was too late for shoppers, and too early for people on a night out, so it seemed strangely quiet. He turned right again, and headed through the indoor market, where the last of the sellers were packing up, and soon enough he was at the town square.
The children’s displays had been taken down, as had the nativity scene, but the Christmas lights were still up, and glowing gently. There were benches around the outside of the square, but Matt stood, looking at the fountain. The last time he stood there was with Rosy, just before Christmas. They were on their way from a bar or to a bar or towards chicken or something, and she dragged him here to look at the fountain. Not the Christmas lights or the pageantry, the fountain, which was the same as it had always been. They stood there in silence for a while, watching the water cascade. It was cold, and neither of them were dressed for the weather, so he put his arms around her, as they watched. He was thinking about what he should say, how he should say it, and was just on the edge of simply saying something, when she span around and asked him to keep a secret. He promised, of course, and she told him she had been going out with Joe for a little over a week, but not to tell anyone because it isn’t official, but she wanted him to know, and she looked so happy. Her eyes shone, she grinned so widely, and all he could do is try to be as happy back, and lock what he might’ve said away, deep inside of him.
Matt stood, looking at the fountain, deep in thought. He watched the water cascade, and foam, and wondered, among other things, what had drawn her here to look at it. He didn’t understand her. He felt some moisture on his face. He looked up. Lightly, it began to snow.