‘I can’t do this. I have to let you go.’
‘You have to stop talking bollocks. We bought two return tickets. We’re going together. To China. Tomorrow.’
‘You’re going without me.’ This six-foot, ginger-haired, blue-eyed Welsh man, who I thought I’d be with forever, even looks me right in the eyes as he squeezes our life out of my heart. ‘I’m sorry, Celeste, I just can’t do it. I do love -’
I have no intention of hearing those words from him right now.
I turn away, wobble on my wedges, yet remain upright, and, frankly strop like I’ve just missed out on the last on-sale Marc Jacobs bag, through the bland coffee shop (this wasn’t my meeting place of choice, I’d have gone to Starbucks), weave past slow afternoon shoppers in the department store, stumble down four flights of escalators, continue to strop along cobles, past Kings Road boutiques, emerging along the side of Albert Square, to enter the artery of My Favourite City in the World: Oxford Road, Manchester.
He loves me but he’s going to Bolivia while I go to China?
Instincts tell me to reach for the nearest double-chocolate-chip muffins but as I started the day finishing yesterday’s Caffé Nero almond croissants, I really shouldn’t touch more carbs in my current state. There’s no telling where the carnage would stop. I ding-ding Lauren instead, and she returns my emergency call immediately.
‘You took your time.’ I snap.
‘Hello Mrs Mack-intosh, how can I help you?’
‘The bastard’s not coming to China.’ I deliver.
‘And does that mean you’ll be cancelling your order too?’
‘Yes. No. Yes.’ A little thumping begins at my forehead. ‘Is it too early for cocktail hour?’
‘I think it would be a little difficult, how about a later time? Say 6pm?’
‘Who am I supposed to be today?’
‘That’s marvellous. So, to confirm, you’d like the Azalea Blue Divine dining range and you’re able to receive at six o clock this evening? Will our delivery guys know where to find the office?’
‘You should tell your shit of a boss that you’re far too creative for their crappy company. And that you’re entitled to the odd personal call. Especially when I’m in a crisis. Another crisis. Oh hell.’
‘It’s not every day that we make such a happy customer, Mrs Mackintosh.’
‘Oh stop talking in code; I’ll be in the usual. At six o clock you say?’
‘That’s perfect.’ Then she whispers closer to the phone, her boss clearly out of earshot now, ‘I love you, Celeste Mackenzie’ then she hangs up.
Lauren is one of my closest friends and a slave, sorry PA and Purchasing Executive Something or Other, for one of the shittiest interior design companies in Manchester. But she loves the home-glamour surroundings, designing for people too lazy to conjure up the perfect home themselves. She also hates bars so I have a couple of hours to kill until we meet in our usual Starbucks on St Ann’s Square, the calm outside piazza environment soothing to her Italian yearnings.
I shove the Nokia inside my bag and a giant splodge of rain smacks me on the head. Manchester. Rainiest city in Britain and my home for the last twenty-six years; my home for the next two hours, to either get pissed upon or to get pissed.
I can’t distract myself with some shopping; that would make everything okay, but if I start shopping in the state I’m in then I won’t actually be able to afford to go to the airport never mind China.
I duck into the doorway of a recruitment agency and contemplate the next few hours. It’s no fun ranting when you’re solo in a bar. Wonder if Sebastian’s working today? I put my best foot forward in the direction of his bar, Prague 5. If he‘s not working then there are plenty of other bars on Canal Street. Getting pissed it would appear to be.
For a Wednesday afternoon, the bar is pretty bloody dead. But Seb is working so drinks are at least on him. And I can rant to a fresh pair of ears.
‘Aida!’ he exclaims when I dump my sorry self onto a high stool, grasping me in his hug, stroking my wet hair. Ai-ee-da: he loves it because he thinks it sounds Chinese and because he once heard some tenor singing Celeste Aida and fell in love. Think he fell in love with the word, not the tenor, for a change.
‘Not long now, love. This time next week, eh?’ He flicks out his arm and checks his watch, just like in the Peter Kay joke, as if next week’s date resides on his wrist, and heads back behind the bar to reach for a triangle glass.
I force out my Vaseline-on-the-teeth grin and rest my chin on the bar.
But no words come out.
What will he think? What will everyone think? Am I dumped? I know I’m not sodding going to Bolivia; that’s miles away from Hong Kong, or even New York, my second favourite city in the world, for that matter.
Oh God, I don’t want to do this.
Eventually I sigh and tell him, ‘You choose; it’s my last mid-week piss up.’
‘And you’re solo?’
He mixes something red with something blue and I find myself nodding. So Low. Absofeckinlutely.
‘Yeah, Madoc’s packing.’ I fib. I have no idea what he’s doing right now, but hopefully it involves agonising pain too.
‘Never mind, cock, you’ll have a whole eleven months of living and shagging together. Sometimes you’ll even be shagging each other!’
‘That I will, Seb. That we will. Tell you what, why don’t you make that concoction a large one, eh?’
Seb rambles on about how fabulous it will be to live in Hong Kong, even though it was only ever China I was going to. He’s been demanding that I send DVDs over every week because he’s not paying high street prices when I’m rooted in knock-off heaven.
I nod and drink. Then I drink and nod. The best thing about mindless bar chat is that you only need a self-absorbed barman and all your problems are solved. In fact, you realise in comparison that you don’t have any problems at all.
As the stream of after-workers and lonely people straggle through to prop up the sticky wooden counter I make my move to meet Lauren. Seb’s busy with customers so I blow him a big kiss and promise him the Sex and the City box set the moment I see it.
If I see it. Perhaps I’ll just clear off to the real Prague, visit mum and dad for a year. No one has to know I didn’t make it to Asia.
By the time I’ve ripped through the city centre, sunlight .bouncing off glass buildings and Dior sunglasses, Lauren’s sat in a purple squishy sofa downstairs, one vanilla latte down.
‘I’ve only been here twenty minutes, don’t apologise,’ she semi-strops.
‘I won’t. Will a grande vanilla latte and a slice of double chocolate cheesecake please thee?’
‘Yes please.’ She grins.
‘You’re a total sweet nut and a push-over and I love you too, hon.’ I declare, making my way back upstairs for the order. .
The good thing about having a local coffee shop is that I’m bumped ahead in the queue by the baristas who, over the last few years, have heard all about my acceptance onto the teacher training course, my first teaching job, the agonies of teaching in a rough-as-chuff secondary school, the dilemma of a new love interest with potential to turn into love and, of course, the plans to spend a year teaching English in China.
‘Usual?’ Jimmy asks, reaching for the mugs.
‘And madams’ usual with two slices of temptation from the top shelf.’
I hand over a twenty and he shakes his head.
‘It’s on th’house, babe. Zaichien.’
‘Zai jian. It’s goodbye. My parents are from Hong Kong.’
‘Oh, ok, cheers. That’s very sweet of you.’
‘Mo mon tie.’
I smile and back away with the tray. Cute, but what the hell’s he saying?
‘Right, where exactly is it that he’s going?’ Lauren sips her latte, her huge brown eyes interrogating me, her mobile stuck to her ear. She makes me repeat what I’ve already told them both twice. Mind, it is hard news to absorb. It’s like being told you have Muse tickets, but you can’t get the time off work to see them play.
‘La Paz. Bolivia.’ She relays the information down the phone again to Chilli, who she apparently called while I was having my ears tickled by the Chinese language from Mr Cute-but-Incomprehensible. Where one friend has a crisis, the other two college friends join in. We met during A’Levels, studied, shopped and fell in love together, and then cleared off to geographically different universities and still kept in touch. I stayed local, studying History in Manchester, Lauren headed to west Wales for Art and Business, more emphasis on the Art, but enough Business to please her parents. Chilli made it to London for Bullshit and Bollocks – PR and Management; with the amount of travelling she does, she actually loves her job. Lauren is the supportive friend, Chilli is the high-maintenance one, currently on a HR secondment in Paris, and has been for the last month.
‘And what is it that he’s doing?’
I take the phone from Lauren and speak to Chilli. ‘Not teaching fucking English I hope.’
Lauren chokes on her cake and Chilli lets off a string of abuse. I let out about three minutes of laughter myself. Hysteria, some might call it. It’s been a bloody stressful afternoon and I haven’t heard from him. I hate it when he allows me cooling-off time.
‘You’re gonna be okay, y’know. As long as you can laugh at it – whatever the situation is – you’ll have them eatin lychees out of the palm of yer hand.’ Lauren confirms.
‘So will youuuu! Come with meeeee!’
She shakes her long brown hair and retreats into her latte.
‘I’d miss England too much.’
‘Gah! That was my excuse!’ My fork finds its way to her cake; I inhaled mine and she‘s too busy consoling me to eat. She looks thoughtful for a moment.
‘Even at college me and Chilii knew you’d be off living abroad.’
‘Aye, and you upped off first, to Paris’. I shout down the phone. ‘Did either of us think it’d take me this long? My parents moved out the country before I did. And I’ve not left yet!’
‘We knew you’d not be cut out for the backpacking lark or a GAP year tramping about in the same clothes until they fall of your arse. And you’re definitely not going to get the chance to live in Paris, in luxury, for six months as a teacher. You’re doing this in style, your way, and you don’t need to follow anyone.’ Chilli educates me over the phone.
‘What about Madoc?’
‘Oh, so he’s not a bastard, arse or a fuckwit anymore?’ Lauren interrupts. Only Lauren and Chilli can be this abusive with my emotions.
I shake my head.
‘He basically talked me into it. Even when the uni accepted me and I got all excited I still wasn’t convinced I’d leave Manchester. And Asia?! I’ve not even bought a guidebook! What the fuck am I doing?’
‘You’re going to have an adventure for all of us. And you’re going to make him wish he’d gone with you. And you’re going to make us all very very jealous because you’re doing something fun with your life while we do the eight-to-five thing.’
‘Oh, it’s fun when I’m doing it, but petrifying if you have to board the plane?’
‘You know what I mean.’ Lauren blushes. I do know what she means; she doesn’t even own a passport.
Chilli rants down the phone, ‘Look, take it as an extended holiday. Get on the fucking plane, see what the accommodation is like, eat some Chinese, get a tan, well, get red in your case, and come back if you’re too lonely. You can get to fucking Sydney and back in two days you know. China’s not the end of the world.’
I nod, but know she can’t hear me. Lauren takes the phone from my hand while I finish my Mocha, I hear her saying she’ll look after me and see the phone go back into her bag.
‘Come on; let’s go buy you a book.’
‘Oooh, and new shoes?’ I feel alive for the first time this afternoon. ‘You said I’d do this in style!’
‘Sure. But you’re buying the shoes.’
A few mind-numbing hours of shopping, albeit in the Trafford Centre, can’t help me to forget that my immediate future looks precipitous. The M&S food hall fooled me for a short time into thinking everything was okay; I intend to make lasting memories of their cookies and ice cream, duck noodle Thai salads and any gooey pud they shelve. At least I can Count on them.
Lauren dropped me off a few minutes ago and now I’m alone in my flat, Madoc’s Lonely Planet China eyeballing me from our kitchen table. He’s not coming to China, is he? He spent hours pouring over that bloody book, shouting out odd, well, Chinese-sounding names, how we were going to end up in these tongue-twister towns. At least Lauren bought me a Rough Guide. I don’t think the towns will be different, but I won’t immediately see him each time I look at the book.
I sink onto a padded chair, gliding my palms over the kitchen table. Oh shit, it’s not our table anymore either. A solid oak, proper kitchen table that looks ridiculously large in our made-for-two-teeny-people kitchen. But it was handy for all the marking, for the school production of Grease (costumes and decorations committee fouled up and I spent three sleepless nights making sure the production didn’t need an 18 certificate). It was also good for one or two other things which definitely needed an 18 certificate. Who will it belong to once the keys have been returned? Who will keep it alive?
I lay my head on the table and add another function to its list: bed.
‘Hi, it’s me.’ I’m slumped onto an airport waiting chair, surrounded by bags.
‘Celeste. I’m so glad you called.’ I had to hear him again; he may still catch the next flight out once he knows I’m really going to China.
‘What, you’ve changed your mind?’
I know what that silence means. He’s still going to Bolivia and I’m going to China alone.
‘I don’t want us to part like this.’
‘I don’t want us to part at all. When do you go?’
‘Three weeks. It’s a great-’
‘Opportunity. Yeah, somebody told me something similar a short while back. Just involved a different continent.’
‘Take care of yourself out there.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m gonna be fine.’
I don’t know what this silence means.
‘Anyway. I gotta go. We’re boarding soon. I’m boarding soon.’
‘I love you, Celeste.’
I hang up and clutch the phone as though it’s him.